It’s been nearly three years since education professor David Kirp’s essay in the New York Times, “Rage against the Common Core,” crystallized for both the right and the left their rising animosity toward the latest school curriculum reforms. Conservatives railed against federal overreach into the prerogatives of local school boards while liberals and teachers’ unions feared that low scores on high-stakes tests would be used to punish teachers and close traditional schools in favor of charters.
The intervening years have dimmed the criticism somewhat as students, teachers and parents in early-adopter districts and states have adapted to solving math word problems and using critical thinking on texts instead of filling in multiple-guess answer sheets. The creators of the tests – top educators from all 50 states -- predicted it would take five years or more for the sea change in teaching and learning to be reflected in majority pass rates, and that was about right in states like New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Arizona is in its third year of the tests for its Common Core-like curriculum, and overall pass rates remain below 50 percent (see the results by school and grade for the Flagstaff area on Page A8). It has phased them in gradually with no high-stakes pressure: The tests are not needed for graduation, and only third-graders who score at the very bottom of the reading test risk being held back.
HIGHS AND LOWS
High and low scores on any test always stand out, and the Arizona tests, called AzMERIT, are no different. The self-selected college prep students in area charters and in magnet programs within traditional high schools do much better (high-cognition students are good test-takers), while students from high-poverty neighborhoods bring fewer home resources and more life challenges to the testing room and their scores show it.
As for the students in the middle, it is hoped that the tests will help pinpoint where more work is needed, both among students in problem-solving applied to academic subjects and for teachers in how they organize and present the materials. AzMERIT, after all, stands for Arizona's Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching, with the emphasis on getting teachers the feedback and the resources they need to help students improve.
State Schools Superintendent Diane Douglas, who ran on a platform of ill-informed opposition to Common Core as something written by the feds (it wasn’t), reacted to the latest scores by criticizing the tests as unrealistic and recommending they be made optional. We’d be more willing to listen if she suggested something to take the place of Common Core and its tests, but since she hasn’t, it’s a good thing local education advocates stand poised to fill the state leadership vacuum.
And they can’t start too soon. Some of the figures for Arizona schools, as compiled by a variety of advocacy groups, are more than troubling:
• 60 percent of Arizona 3rd graders cannot read on grade level
• 48th in the country in state per-pupil spending
• 45th in the country in 4th grade reading
• More than 1,000 teacher positions in Arizona filled by long-term, noncredentialed substitutes
In Flagstaff, it’s been about a year since a range of service groups and nonprofits, reacting to those figures and more, declared education as this region’s top priority, with the United Way of Northern Arizona designated as the “backbone” organization for what has been dubbed LAUNCH Flagstaff. Major initial funding is from the Arizona Community Foundation and the Wharton Foundation, and the coalition has hired an executive director and is ready to hold its first community forum early next month,
Their goals include increasing the following:
--The number of children entering kindergarten ready for school
-- The number of students reading at grade level at the end of the third grade
--The number of 8th grade students performing at grade level in math
--The number of students graduating from high school within four years; and
--The number of students entering college or technical training after high school.
Those goals don’t specifically address raising AzMERIT overall test scores because the scores themselves aren’t the point. It’s about getting each student to the end of the term having mastered that year’s subject matter, and we don’t know a better way to determine grade-level proficiency in English and math than the tests. Once students and teachers have grown comfortable with Common Core and computerized testing, then the scores can be used to judge teacher and overall school performance – assuming there is a fair way to account for differing levels of preparation, organization and aptitude in students.
GETTING TO MASTERY
For now, getting more students to passing levels on AzMERIT will take more than just time – other states that have succeeded pay more for teacher excellence, have smaller class sizes, spend more days a year in class and support parents and children in at-risk families with tutoring and other resources. LAUNCH will be showing a series of films in September that show these success stories, culminating in an education Town Hall on Sunday, Oct. 1, that will focus on PreK-12 funding and what can be done locally. For more information, visit the LAUNCH website at http://launchflagstaff.org/events/