The Common Core journalism blackout

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Earlier this month, a deliberately anonymous teacher set forth some of the problems she saw in the Common Core-based test she had to give her students. This teacher argued — and provided anecdotal evidence to show — that the Common Core-based test: (1) is developmentally inappropriate; and (2) does not actually assess what it claims to assess. Both excellent points. But it seems unlikely that reporters for any “mainstream” — or even non-mainstream — media outlets will investigate either of her assertions.  

Criticism of Common Core, it is regularly implied by the mainstream, comes only from wing-nuts concerned about “federal overreach,” not from teachers or parents or experts on standards and testing. But as Mark McQuillan (former commissioner of education in Connecticut), Richard Phelps (testing expert), and I wrote in our analysis of Common Core-based sample tests, PARCC (one of the major Common Core-aligned tests) has at least four major problems.

1. Most PARCC writing prompts do not elicit the kind of writing done in college or the real world of work. One-third alone is devoted to narratives, mostly imaginative writing.

2. PARCC uses a format for assessing word knowledge (“use context to determine the word’s meaning”) that is almost completely unsupported by research. This pedagogical format seriously misleads teachers and cripples readers who need to develop fluency in continuous prose reading.

3. PARCC uses “innovative” item-types for which no evidence exists to support claims that they tap deeper thinking and reasoning as part of understanding a text.

4. PARCC tests require many instructional hours to administer and prepare for, but they do not give teachers or parents the kind of information that would justify the extra hours and costs.

These are major flaws that are not likely to be resolved by MCAS 2.0 (the test that will replace PARCC in the Bay State starting next year) because many of the test items that will be in MCAS 2.0 will come from PARCC. (The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in November 2015 to continue the Bay State’s membership in the PARCC testing consortium). Without vetting by the state’s own teachers across the state, how can Massachusetts administrators and teachers be confident that MCAS 2.0 won’t simply be another vehicle for PARCC’s flawed test items?

Unfortunately, not one of these issues has been thoroughly reported by the mainstream media. How can one account for such journalism “gaps”? One reason may be the reward system used by the Education Writers Association (EWA), which met in May in Boston for its annual conference (May 1-3). As blogger Anthony Cody commented, in a response to a Pioneer Institute paper on the EWA conference:

“In 2014, my blog posts highly critical of the Common Core actually won first prize in the EWA’s annual contest. The next year they changed their rules so only reporters employed in mainstream publications are eligible. Some of the best investigative work is being done these days by independent, unpaid bloggers. But at EWA, bloggers need not apply. Since most mainstream publications tend to support the Common Core, this effectively eliminates critics of the national standards (and other corporate reform projects).”

In effect, EWA has found a subtle way to blacklist writers who might write critically about Common Core’s standards and tests.

As part of the journalism “gap,” reporters have not yet noted the lack of research supporting Common Core “architect” David Coleman’s notion that substituting informational texts for literature will improve students’ college readiness. Not only is Coleman’s assertion not supported by research, available data indicate that exactly the opposite is more likely to happen. For example, we know that reading scores went down in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results for grade 8.

Reporters have also failed to inform their readers about what is missing from Common Core standards, including: a list of recommended authors, standards on British literature apart from Shakespeare, and study of the history of the English language. Is it not newsworthy to note that, while high-achieving students in academically-oriented private and suburban schools will likely get the rich literary-historical content that provides the basis for critical and analytical thinking, under the Common Core regime, urban students will get little more than reading comprehension exercises?

Why does the media “establishment” believe policy makers and education researchers who themselves seem to believe without evidence that standards mostly in the form of empty skills could develop “critical thinking” or “deeper learning”? It is strange to see them promote as “rigorous” math standards whose quality they should instead suspect because the only mathematicians praising Common Core’s math standards (Jason Zimba and William McCallum) wrote them.

What happened to skepticism or investigative journalism? Could it be that most reporters can’t read and understand high school mathematics or science standards?

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.