Virtual Voices
A Michigan fifth grade teacher points to her Common Core wall charts she created.
Associated Press/Photo by Carlos Osorio
A Michigan fifth grade teacher points to her Common Core wall charts she created.

Common Core: Reasonable reform, or just another expensive test?

Education

INDIANAPOLIS—The Common Core academic standards, the subject of fervent debate in my home state of Indiana and in several other states, looks like an earlier education reform initiative called IPASS.

In 1995, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh wanted a new standardized test, called IPASS, to replace the ISTEP test. It was supposed to be more in-depth and require students to write essays, not answer just multiple-choice questions. But the Indiana General Assembly rejected the proposal, which seemed to benefit educational testing companies more than students.

Common Core is a national attempt to set higher standards that seem reasonable. First-graders, for example, should be able to “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure.”

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Although the standards aren’t necessarily better than current ones here in Indiana, they would get the state on the same page with 44 other states that have adopted Common Core.

Still, it makes sense to follow the money. Common Core would be a windfall for testing companies. Indiana would get rid of ISTEP, replacing it with a new test based on Common Core principles.

Critics contend that the new standards won’t improve academic achievement. They argue that with math, for example, Common Core places a strong emphasis on theory rather than practical applications.

“Math is ruthlessly cumulative,” said Jamie Gass of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which was disappointed in how Common Core replaced better standards in Massachusetts. “Automatic recall of the times table is the way kids learn math, to be able to do fractions and decimals, which build up to Algebra I. The fuzzy math is a more process-oriented approach to math. But there are some things you have to just learn and memorize.”

Common Core supporters contend that students need to be measured against their peers across the country. But that comparison can be obtained through existing national tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Supporters of Common Core sometimes confuse assessment with better teaching in the classroom. We need Common Core to have new national tests, which can drive better teaching into the classroom.

Yet new tests could cause some of the same confusion with new math, or the whole language attempt to replace phonics. Teachers will need retraining, and parents will be confused.

Be wary of educational reformers who offer better, more expensive tests. We have been through these cycles before.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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