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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 01/21/2011

Testing the Common Core Standards

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Todd S. Farley, who worked for years in the standardized testing industry and authored the book “Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry.” He previously wrote about his experiences on this blog, and, now, looks at the link between testing and the Common Core standards. (The company to which he refers to in this post will remain anonymous; he would not disclose it, and no, he did not actually "hack" in. Read on to find out what I'm talking about.)

By Todd S. Farley
If there’s one thing the uber-confident if minimally experienced education reformers can agree on, it’s that this country’s students need “high standards.” The thought is that the high expectations of “high standards” in our schools will allow the United States to overcome any educational deficiencies we face (even the huge hurdle of our terrible teachers). This clamoring to raise the bar for our students is how we ended up with the revolutionary Common Core Standards, those academic benchmarks the reformers hope will lead us back to an educational promised land (also known as “Finland”).

But are the Common Core Standards really “revolutionary”? Or are they fundamentally the same as the sets of standards that currently exist in each of the 50 states, different only in their wording?

That is the question I recently set out to answer, when—in an heroic act of corporate espionage that I undertook for you, dear readers—I stealthily broke into the computer item bank of an assessment company I used to work for to look at their test questions and standards.

What did I find? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think I found the Common Core Standards look a lot like every other set of state standards I worked with over the years (that is, a list or grid of overblown educational rhetoric describing the simple skills American students should have mastered).

For instance, the following multiple-choice question (written to a passage about feuding neighbors) is aligned to the Common Core Standards:

With which universal idea does this passage mostly deal?
E) the importance of overcoming grudges
F) the continued strength of the human spirit
G) the rebirth that happens each spring
H) the redemptive abilities of hard work

The specific Common Core Standard that item is aligned to identifies it as a “Literature” question focused on “Key Ideas and Details” that specifically can show whether or not a student is able to “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.”

Heady talk indeed, all those impressive words summarizing up that short, little question.

In any case, that item is being sold as one aligned to the Common Core Standards, part of the new wave of new assessments that will shake this country’s schools right to the foundation. Or not, if you consider that same, exact question is also being sold for use on myriad other state tests.

For instance, that question is also being marketed as one aligned to work with the Alabama standards (“Drawing conclusions from recreational reading texts”); the Arizona standards (“Analyze the author’s use of literary elements/theme”); the California standards (“Compare works that express a universal theme…”); the Colorado standards (“Read a given text, identify the theme, and provide support from the text”); the Florida standards (“Identify and analyze universal themes and symbols across genres…and explain their significance”); the Georgia standards (“Applies knowledge of the concept that the theme or meaning of a selection represents a universal view…”); the Illinois standards (“Explain relationships between and among literary elements including character, plot, setting, theme, conflict and resolution and their effectiveness of the literary piece”), etc. etc. etc…

I have neither the time nor inclination to list here every set of state standards that that one test question aligns to, but suffice it to say there are many, many more, which I suggest you keep that in mind when next you hear talk of those “revolutionary” new Common Core Standards.

Perhaps I’m failing to see their uniqueness as academic benchmarks only because I’m not fully qualified as an education reformer, but to me the Common Core Standards—and the millions of questions the testing industry will gleefully (ca-ching!) write to address them—look a whole lot like all those crappy questions and tests I’ve worked on for the last decade and a half.

I’m just saying.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 21, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, National Standards, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  academic benchmarks, common core standards, common standards, content standards, national standards, standardized testing, standardized testing industry, state standards, testing industry, todd farley, todd s. farley  
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Poorly written questions normally get poor answers. A mix of poorly written questions multiply poor answers. I do not understand how so many tests and questions can be used as a "standard." It goes against everything I know of testing.

Starting with (E) is a distractor of itself and appears by design. Yet the children are punished over this mess.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 21, 2011 7:31 AM | Report abuse

The most embarrassing thing about the Common Core ELA standards is that they cannot be "internationally benchmarked," despite the fact that doing so is a requirement for their use in Race to the Top. As Todd says, they are similar in form to many other US state standards, but fundamentally different than the approach other countries take (e.g., Finland). Specifically, US ELA standards have trended toward describing specific academic tasks.

For example, Finland:

The objectives of the course are for students to
• consolidate their knowledge of literary genres and their distinctive characteristics;
• develop in the analysis of fictional texts, using different approaches to interpretation and the necessary concepts of literature studies, so as to be capable of also producing a written or oral interpretation of a text and to participate in discussions about literature;

Common Core
1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
2. Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Posted by: TomHoffman | January 21, 2011 9:14 AM | Report abuse

This article is nothing but an attack on a strawman. The advantage of the core standards is not that they provide some revolutionary set of standards, but that they are *common*. This makes it possible to use common assessments, instead of state based ones which are difficult to compare assessments.

Posted by: staticvars | January 21, 2011 10:23 AM | Report abuse

"This article is nothing but an attack on a strawman. The advantage of the core standards is not that they provide some revolutionary set of standards, but that they are *common*. This makes it possible to use common assessments, instead of state based ones which are difficult to compare assessments."

Therein lies the irony of the article... the assessments aren't really changing. Testing companies are simply recycling old test questions originally marketed to states for their tests and shoehorning them into the "new" Common Core standards. After all, if you're a testing company, why spend all those man-hours developing new questions when you already have a library of questions that seem to fit the bill?

Posted by: joshofstl1 | January 21, 2011 2:10 PM | Report abuse


"This article is nothing but an attack on a strawman"

The author's argument in this article is not a strawman. Perhaps its implicit causes are, but those implications take place in readers' minds and not in the author's argument itself. The author set out to prove a point and uses evidence that specifically addresses his point.

He makes no claim about the Common Core advantages or disadvantages. Notice that "you" created the strawman with your misunderstood interpretation of his argument. "You" addressed the common core advantages.

To attack the argument, you will need to attack what he addresses. You cannot put words in an author's mouth. You cannot just make-up an imagery position that he might hold and attack it. You need to have some integrity. By definition, you, not he, are guilty of that which you would condemn this man.

Posted by: DHume1 | January 21, 2011 3:54 PM | Report abuse

The argument about and pursuit of national standards are a tremendous waste of time, money, and energy. . .This post is dead on; I addressed the folly of common core standards here:

Posted by: plthomas3 | January 21, 2011 5:35 PM | Report abuse

This column was next to useless. I have read several of the studies that examine the Common Core Standards on their own and in comparison to California and Massachusetts and they raised important questions of sequencing, types and range and bodies of knowledge and how do you know which content aligns by level and issue area. This column does nothing but complain with a single example. This is an important issue. Give it real substance so that as citizens we really understand and can communicate our support or concerns to local educational leaders.

Posted by: Brooklander | January 21, 2011 7:59 PM | Report abuse

"The author's argument in this article is not a strawman."

I didn't say the author's argument was a strawman, I said it was an attack on a strawman. Since you may have skipped rhetoric, what I meant was when the author says, "are the Common Core Standards really 'revolutionary'?" he is misrepresenting the argument he is opposing. No one is claiming that the Common Core is revolutionary. He then shows that it is not revolutionary by picking examples that were already in state standards. So what?!? The idea is that this is the *common* core. If it wasn't drawn from state standards, it wouldn't be common!

So, that's what a strawman is: creating a fake point and then arguing against it. No one cares if the common core is revolutionary. Proving it's not revolutionary proves nothing of any importance.

We just care that we can start using national standardized tests and prevent the waste of 50 states trying to create 50 times as many standardized tests to meet 50 sets of standards.

Posted by: staticvars | January 21, 2011 11:47 PM | Report abuse

I read the common core standards for 7th grade, and they were very similar to the state standards that are already in place in my state.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 23, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse


If I had more time I would cut and paste them all, but this should suffice (you should avoid those pesky universals that you didn't apparently learn about in your rhetoric class):

Apparently many people are claiming that the common core are "revolutionary" in some way, especially good ole Arne Duncan.

And by the way, sophistry lover, this writer developed his own position. He never side-steps. He never deviates from the topic. He never says one thing and then attacks a separate position as a diversionary tactic. He sets out to prove exactly what he said he would do.

I must admit, though--and I do agree with your point here--that the position is quite lame, but he nevertheless does what he intended.

And Inigo Montoya said it best concerning the phrase straw man: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Posted by: DHume1 | January 24, 2011 2:17 AM | Report abuse

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