By now we are all checking and double-checking to make certain we have “covered” at least half (if not more) of the Common Core standards for our disciplines, with a high-stakes standardized test looming in the not-too-distant future. Winter break is almost over, and we all know that after break, what used to be the slowest time of the year is now a runaway train attempt to plug all the holes we discovered in our December short-cycle assessments. We start grumbling as we look over our standards, wishing we could throw Common Core out the window along with the tests associated with the curriculum. We blame the system for taking the fun out of teaching and making it impossible for our students to succeed.
Across the country, parents decry the Common Core. They believe it is unfair, a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and merely the latest fad in education. They want a return to basics, and teachers want a return to freedom of choice in what and how they teach. The irony here is that with the Common Core, parents and teachers are getting exactly what they are asking for. The problem is not, and has never been, the Common Core, but the instruments used to assess it, as well as the pressure resulting from the weight of these assessments in determining the fate of students, teachers, and schools. Assessments like PARCC hung like a shadow over most schools in the country, and teachers felt the only way to keep their jobs was to somehow teach to this impossible test. Yet the test became so associated with the Common Core that people failed to see that one was not the other–in fact, one did not even measure the other.
Common Core State Standards have never been the real problem. The real problem has been that the tests used to measure mastery of these standards did not do so. The tests failed to allow for the fact that real students taught by sensitive teachers would be taking these tests, and ultimately they tested a student’s reading level and nothing more. I know my students can identify main ideas and supporting details in passages written at their reading levels. It has somehow escaped the understanding of certain standardized test developers that a student has to understand the passage before he or she can answer analytical questions about it. How can such a test be considered legitimate when students have no choice but to guess at the answers?
Now that PARCC is no longer the test of choice for almost all states in the U.S., does that mean we should throw out the Common Core? I don’t think so. What we can do is take the “common” out of Common Core and use the very good standards that it provides as a basis for meeting the particular and individual needs of students in our schools and districts. Differentiation is still needed, but why couldn’t a school or district modify the Common Core standards to allow for differentiation strategies, both high and low? Why, for that matter, couldn’t a school or district modify all standards to better reflect the needs of their particular populations? With PARCC out of the way, we can use the Common Core standards as a basis for relevant, project-based learning that not only meets the needs of our students but aligns to authentic assessments–and yes, even computer-based, objective assessments can be designed to be authentic. Think problem solving!
We are blessed to have done away with the PARCC assessment in New Mexico, but that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods. We need to go back to the faith we had in our own instincts before No Child Left Behind frightened us into teaching to the tests, and teach for learning and relevance. We were on the right track with project-based, collaborative and cooperative learning 25 years ago, and these strategies are even more needed now as students enter a technologically advanced workplace where soft skills are at increasingly high demand. Can we use the Common Core to help students achieve mastery of soft skills? Can we use the Common Core to achieve relevance in our instruction and to design authentic assessments for our students? Can we make the Common Core a resource–rather than an obligation–that guides us to the best teaching, and our students to the best learning? Of course! Of course we can!