Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Are High Standards Leading To Better Outcomes?

The Collaborative for Student Success was created to help push the Common Core State Standards, and it remains devoted to that goal, proudly announcing "The Results Are In: High Standards Are Leading to Better Outcomes," a headline we can take just about as seriously as a headline from the Ford PR department announcing that the new Ford Taurus Is Awesome!

CSS is an astro-turf advocacy group, a group built with money from the usual suspects to push the Core on the rest of us. The list of funders includes the Broad Foundation, ExxonMobile, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, and, of course, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its website lists it as a project of the New Venture Fund, a group funded by Gates to support the Core "through comprehensive and targeted communications and advocacy." You can check out more connections courtesy of the indispensable Mercedes Schneider, but you get the general gist-- these guys exists only to try to convince us all that the Core are wonderful.

This, of course, does not mean that they cannot possibly say True Things, so while we have to view these Results that are In with a suspicious eye, we can still evaluate their actual merits, if any.

The Results are pretty much meaningless, or possibly alarming. Here's the main claim:

Among third grade students – students whose entire academic careers have been guided by high standards – math scores increased by more than three percentage points.  

Let me rephrase that just a bit.

Among third graders-- students whose entire academic careers have been spent taking and prepping for the Big Standardized Test and who have never known a school that was not organized around testing-- math scores were better than they were for students who only had two, one, or zero years to be prepped and practiced for taking the BS Test.

There. Fixed that for you.

Delaware Governor Jack Markell, New Mexico Secretary of Ed Hanna Skandera, and CSS Executive Director Jim Cowen lined up to try to sell this big, fat nothingburger.

“Success in this economy requires a higher level of training and skill development than ever,” Delaware’s Gov. Jack Markell remarked in a press event on Tuesday...

Note that Markell just reduced the purpose of education to simple job training. Then note that at no point in the press conference do any of these worthies make any meaningful connection between greater skills and higher scores on a standardized test. Are they suggesting that the ability to score well on a standardized math test is a skill that's highly valued in the workplace? Because I'm betting not so much.

The big lie in the headline is the phrase "better outcomes," because there is only one outcome, and that is higher score on a narrow standardized test, an outcome which is largely meaningless. The almost-as-big lie in the headline is that these higher test scores are the result of "higher" standards when the most likely explanation is that students more saturated in test prep and practice tend to score higher on that test.

But the biggest omission in this piece of PR fluffery is an examination of the cost.

So we got third graders to score a few points higher on the test. What did it cost us to do that? Not just financial costs, though I'm sure there were plenty of those. But other costs as well-- how much recess was sacrificed, how many hours of art or music or phys ed or science or play? How much time was spent trying to get small children to stop enjoying themselves and sit down at a desk to learn test-taking skills? How much time was spent instilling a sense of anxiety about the tests so that the students would be more likely to actually try? How much less joyful and interesting were those first years of school, and how big a price will these students pay in the coming years for the new kind of relationships forged with school, in which the main point of school is to get ready for the test so that they can produce the scores that the school needs them to produce? And yes-- all the money spent on new materials and new training and the tests themselves, all the money that couldn't be spent on other things that might have benefited the students.

So we got third graders to score a few points higher on the Big Standardized Test. So what? What proven benefit will that earn them? What other outcomes can be shown to come from that single, small outcome? And what have they sacrificed and lost in pursuit of this tiny, meaningless "victory"?


  1. I teach at a community college. My students are not better prepared than students from ten years ago. In fact, my students from ten years ago seemed to be better readers. I know that my older students who went to school decades ago are much better readers. Basically, my students don't read books anymore. They can barely manage to understand how two paragraphs fit together.

    1. This is what happens when teaching has no meaning to kids beyond BS test scores. Vacant, lifeless, deer in the headlihgts generation. Heck of a job Arne!

  2. My 5th grade student's math skills are weaker than my 10th grade student's. And my 5th grader hates school, it is hard and dull. Thanks CA Common Core.

  3. Better outcomes for Gates, Broad, Koch brothers, the Waltons, et. al.

    What you are seeing is the tip of the iceberg. The full scope of the NCLB/RTTT disaster is just starting to unfold.

  4. The next wave of “higher” standards is knocking at our science room doors: NGSS!
    Another “implementation” disaster in the making as these close cousins to Common Core standards stress vague skill sets over knowledge. The infusion of engineering into the sciences is laying the trap for personalized learning. Kids will gain nothing from this. Just another plan cooked up by profiteers that have zero understanding of classroom dynamics and the importance of relationships. I got a whiff of this at a recent state MS conference. I met a rep for a company pushing STEM software. She surprised me when she told me that the program was FREE to any school interested. When I asked her how that was possible she told me that it was underwritten by the NFL. What a tangled web they weave . . .

  5. I call it learned helplessness. I have 10th grade Algebra 2 students who cannot graph a line from an equation. They don't know what to do. They passed the Algebra 1 assessment, so I guess what they know how to do is match graphs that were provided to them to the test equation. But wait, these days, in Florida, getting only 28% of the test questions correct is a passing score. So passing the test doesn't mean students have really learned anything.