Stop, put down your device or magazine, and read The New York Times article announcing the statewide results of Common Core testing in New York. New York spent a great deal of time, effort, and money preparing for its first round of assessments. Yet, as you can see, statewide “passing” grades dropped from last year’s 65 percent in math and 55 percent in English Language Arts to 31 percent in each of those subject areas this year—huge declines. Anyone who has seen the results must be thinking long and hard about such key questions as: How can Common Core implementation can be improved? What sections of the assessments were especially difficult for students? Who performed well, and why?
But what I noticed right off—and surely struck many of you—is that we need to stop talking about the Common Core State Standards in the singular. There is a whole set of distinct Common Core challenges, and we need to be clear sighted about what they are, and the tools needed to address them.
I realized some time ago that there was more than one kind of Common Core experience. For young children, in preschool or elementary, Common Core is and will be their school experience. Year after year they will be exposed to content-rich nonfiction and increasingly complex texts and vocabulary, and they will gain skills in close reading and mining textual evidence. But for the students already in middle, and especially, high school, the Common Core Standards present another challenge. The schooling they received and learned to negotiate does not match the assessments that require them to demonstrate the above-mentioned skills. We need to define the needs of students who are in free fall as well as those who are rising through the new system. That is step one. Step two is more difficult.
The New York State results put me in mind of a suggestion a principal made to me earlier this summer: we must disaggregate scores to determine which cohort is experiencing the sharpest decline. This principal, accustomed to the daily triage of deciding where to best use limited resources, recognized that the lowest scores are not seen evenly throughout our schools. The steepest drops in scores seem to be in the most challenged schools. This may seem self-evident, but it is not. The needs of students— and communities—vary. What are the needs of a school where many families have deep pockets and available resources versus the demands of a school where almost all of the support and instruction takes place within the school building? And the issue is not just the burdens the students face, but school policies. In my experience, struggling schools too often turn to programs—teaching scripts, mandated curricula, and (very) limited and structured reading requirements. The cure makes the ailment worse.
Here’s a project for those reading this column: Can we compare the Common Core outcomes of schools with parallel demographics, a first set with accredited full-time school librarians against another that uses aides and volunteers, or in which the librarian essentially checks out books? Does a librarian make a difference in outcomes? How? We all need to know that—but we won’t find out until we look past the headlines and into the numbers.
What’s to be done? In one sense, I think the New York results are encouraging. The Common Core standards were initiated because high school graduates were not prepared for the next stage in their lives. The recent assessments have allowed us to examine those gaps while the students are still in our buildings. We have time to help these students. But what resources must we adopt to do so? How can the deep thinking and engaged reading required by the Common Core standards be effectively taught in the schools where there the pass rate was between 0 to 5 percent? Can we develop Common Core assessments that address vocational needs? I can’t be the first person to ask these questions. I’m eager to learn what kinds of programs and interventions you have seen that are effective, ineffective, or produce middling results. Surely there are innovators and researchers who are blazing trails, testing ideas, and pointing the way for the rest of us.
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