Common Core: Teaching to the New Test – PART II

Characteristics of “teacher-centered” education include a “core curriculum based on the traditional disciplines,” emphasis on learning content and skills, and letter and/or percentage grades based on tests that determine the student’s aptitude and mastery of the subject matter. Yet, Common Core ignores such research.

By Mary Grabar | June 20, 2013

Glenn Beck discusses the Common Core curriculum

The New Testing Converts

Although scores have slipped and classroom discipline has deteriorated, progressive teachers insist that the classroom of old, with its discipline and tests, was repressive. But with Common Core, suddenly, testing opponents become advocates.

Among the converts is Columbia Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, whose progressive ideas and programs have been the object of Sol Stern’s attacks. Ironically, last summer, Stern blasted Calkins’s progressive “child-centered” reading and writing program “that disdained content knowledge and any prescribed curriculum.”

Calkins is co-author of the popular Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement. This teacher’s guide decries the “skill and drill” of the previous administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program in favor of “deep reading” and “higher-level thinking.”

The publisher, Heinemann, also produces ready-to-go curricular material and offers workshops on Common Core by Calkins and her colleagues.

Another convert to testing is Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama’s education director on his presidential transition team, and Bill Ayers’s choice for Education Secretary, as he campaigned in the Huffington Post in January 2009. She, of course, did not get that job, but was instead put in charge of $176 million of stimulus funds to develop tests under one of two consortia (to bypass the questions of constitutionality that would arise by administering one test).

Darling-Hammond has been promoting Common Core widely. In a 2009 Harvard Educational Review article, she announced that Common Core would eclipse “the narrow views of the last eight years” by encouraging “deep understanding,” employing “multiple measures of learning and performance,” and “developing creativity, critical thinking skills, and the capacity to innovate.” In 2010, in Education Week, she again asserted that her assessment system would go “beyond the recall of facts” (of NCLB testing). These new assessments would show “students’ abilities to evaluate evidence, problem solve and understand context,” she promised.

Preview from Sample Test Questions

Testing will not get underway until the 2014/2015 school year, although at least one state, Arizona, is preparing by incorporating Common Core test questions into its own tests.

But we have a preview of what test questions will be like in Joan Herman and Robert Linn’s previously cited CRESST report. The authors give four examples of test questions offered by the two consortia, PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium), the latter Darling-Hammond’s group.

The first Smarter Balanced Sample Performance Assessment Task for 11th grade English Language Arts uses the topic, “Nuclear Power: Friend or Foe?” This complex and highly contentious (and non-literary) issue is thrust upon teenagers in a 20-minute discussion where the teacher is instructed: “Using stimuli such as a chart and photos, the teacher prepares students for Part 1 of the assessment by leading students in a discussion of the use of nuclear power.” The discussion should entail having students “share prior knowledge about nuclear power” and discuss “the use and controversies involving nuclear power.” Afterwards, for 50 minutes, students are to complete “reading and pre-writing activities,” in which they “read and take notes on a series of Internet sources about the pros and cons of nuclear power.” They then “respond to two constructed response questions” that ask students to evaluate the credibility of the arguments discussed.

The writing assignment directs students to behave as activists as they use 70 minutes to “compose a full-length, argumentative report for their congressperson in which they use textual evidence” to justify their pro or con positions.

The report authors look for DOK, or Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge criteria, a favorite measurement tool of progressive educators. DOK distinguishes presumed levels of knowledge, from 1 to 4, broken down as 1) recall, skill/concept, 2) application of concepts, 3) applications requiring abstract thinking, and 4) extended analysis that requires “synthesis and analysis across multiple contexts and non-routine applications. “ Level 1 is the lowly disparaged “skill and drill,” the ability to recall facts. “Deep” and its cognates pepper the Common Core academic, promotional, and sales literature.

Open-ended questions and group projects that test for such high DOK levels, however, open the door to subjective analysis. How does one assess “creativity” and the “capacity to innovate”? The nuclear power assignment allows for only the shallowest kind of analysis when it comes to understanding the science, but records a high level on DOK.

On May 29, the Smarter Balanced consortium also released sample questions. For eleventh grade ELA (English/Language Arts), the questions similarly concerned ideological and trivial questions about public art, meditation, and “sustainable fashion.” The other questions concerned anonymous passages written in a pedestrian prose style or spoken by a computer-generated voice about Ferris wheels, a volcanic island, arachnids, and fluoridation. These questions did not even approach the complexity of content and style associated with classic works of literature.

For sixth-grade math, the CRESST report showcased another activity-based assignment that involved group discussions on “Taking a Field Trip.” The teacher is to introduce students to the topic and “activate prior knowledge of planning field trips” by leading students in a “whole class discussion” about previous field trips and “creating a chart” of the top choices determined by a class vote, “followed by a whole class discussion on the top two or three choices.”

Student tasks then are to: Recommend the place for the field trip, based on the class vote; determine the per-student cost for various choices; evaluate a student’s recommendation about going to the zoo based on a given cost chart; and write a short note to the teacher arguing for a destination.

The next assessment, for PARCC seventh-grade ELA, is based on using textual evidence from books and articles about Amelia Earhart. It seemed to be directed in a feminist direction, i.e., involving discussions about Earhart’s “heroism” as a woman.

The last sample question is a PARCC Performance-Based Mathematics Task Prototype for High School, “Golf Balls in Water,” which, according to the report, “exemplified DOK4 through a multipart investigation of linear relationships using an experiment involving the effect on the water level of adding golf balls to a glass of water.” It is not clear if students are to do this as a group.

The authors of the CRESST report conclude, “the increased intellectual rigor—DOK level—that both consortia’s assessments are intended to embody is both a tremendous strength and a potential challenge to implementation.” While praising the new assessments’ abilities to “address much deeper levels of knowledge, application, communication, and problem solving than do current state assessments,” they note that the “availability of resources” will make a difference in how well they are accepted.

The vendors are standing at the ready to accept “resources” from taxpayers.

The Failure of Constructivist Learning and DOK

As Barry Garelick pointed out (see Part I) in his article criticizing Common Core math, “[students] are called upon to think critically before acquiring the analytic tools with which to do so.” In the nuclear power assignment students are asked to make quick judgments and then act as advocates. Such pedagogy opens the door to indoctrination.

This kind of pedagogy also fails to improve student learning as Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark reveal in their 2006 Educational Psychologist article, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” They conclude, “After a half-century associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.”

One of the cited studies found that medical students who used problem-based learning (PBL) made more errors than those who were taught the traditional way. The problem with such minimal guidance pedagogy is that mental energy is wasted as the brain is asked to simultaneously search for knowledge, pull together data, and apply it.

Such studies back up what common sense and hundreds of years of education tell us: that one needs a base of knowledge first in order to know what to look for when conducting research, doing problem-solving, and even reading. This is precisely what E.D. Hirsch found when he first analyzed reading skills: those students who did not have a base of knowledge had difficulty in reading comprehension. E.D. Hirsch’s observations have been borne out by an analysis of studies conducted by the late Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall in her book, The Academic Achievement Challenge. Chall found that the traditional mode of teaching, “teacher-centered,” was more effective in academic achievement than the progressive “student-centered” mode—especially for low-and-middle-income students. Characteristics of “teacher-centered” education include a “core curriculum based on the traditional disciplines,” emphasis on learning content and skills, and letter and/or percentage grades based on tests that determine the student’s aptitude and mastery of the subject matter.

Yet, Common Core ignores such research. In almost every way it follows failed methods of “student-centered” learning by whatever name it goes by—constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, or inquiry-based.

So we need to wonder: do the bureaucrats have a different idea of education in mind? Do they not believe that the purpose of schools is to produce independent, civically engaged adults knowledgeable about science, history and literature, and prepared to employ their skills in writing and math?

The words of the most prominent test developer, the Secretary of Education, and our president, as we shall see, suggest a radically different view. The new “assessments” seem to be intended to eliminate excellence, promote collective thinking, and track “non-cognitive skills.” We’ll take a look at what they have said about such brave new world “assessments” in Part III.


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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