Put Us to the Test (January Edition)

Jan 23, 2014

Nothing Common About the Common Core

Father: How were the exam questions?
Son: Easy.
Father: Then why do you look so unhappy?
Son: The questions didn’t give me any trouble, but the answers did!

In Charles Dickens’s satirical novel Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind unemotionally explains his style of teaching as, “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.“

What Dickens presciently knew is that learning is not about memorizing facts but interacting with them. Mr. Gradgrind, as his name suggests, is a symbol of 19th-century industrialization and the idea of mechanization over imagination. Dickens saw this as the dawning of a dystopian society, and he used irony and exaggeration to make his point. And though critics warn that the 21st-century Common Core assessments are heralding a new dystopia in testing, they are exaggerating and missing the point.

The Common Core standards and the consortia of test developers are demanding that students go beyond mere facts and interact with the text itself. Like our young test taker correctly pointed out above, the questions may seem simple, but the answers are not. These test questions are about substance—answer the question and then support your response. Choose an answer and then cite the evidence that backs it up. The assessments are also leveling the testing field—prior knowledge is out, and in-depth analysis of the text is in. Every part of the answer has to be based on the text(s), and that includes inferences and conclusions. Students are required to think about what they read, to analyze, to delve beneath the surface of the text. Math assessments are based on citing evidence as well.

Parents can recall the one question most often reiterated by young children—“Why?“ Children don’t want to just know…they want to understand. So now it’s time for test makers to turn the tables and ask why—and how and all of the other questions that allow students to not just answer but demonstrate the depth of their understanding. “How do you know?“ becomes as important as “What do you know?“

According to Dickens, “Depth answers unto depth.“ He cautions that students are being told, “Never wonder.“ Now, 160 years later, the CCSS is demanding that students “develop a depth of understanding“ and, in effect, wonder. This is hardly a controversial idea—it is something that savvy parents and good teachers do instinctively. Classroom discussions center on questions such as “How do you know?“ and “Why do you think that?“ Teachers should not have to “teach to the test,“ as these tests are admittedly demanding but are intended to serve as extensions of good teaching. The CCSS initiative has been clear that the standards are not setting curriculum. They are a set of goals and expectations that are intended to prepare students for college and careers. In the words of Dickens, “Let them be!“

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