"Standards!" Why the Fuss? I’d Rather Concern Myself with Education

[I posted this on the Academe blog on 12/28/2104.]
Education “reformers,” in an attempt to save the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), are now attempting to decouple “standards” and “high-stakes testing.” In an op-ed in The New York Times today, for example, David Kirp, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, writes:
Although the Obama administration didn’t craft the standards, it weighed in heavily, using some of the $4.35 billion from the Race to the Top program to encourage states to adopt not only the Common Core (in itself, a good thing) but also frequent, high-stakes testing (which is deeply unpopular). The mishandled rollout turned a conversation about pedagogy into an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing. The misconception that standards and testing are identical has become widespread.
Well, no. CCSS is not, “in itself, a good thing” and it was not the “rollout” that attached it to testing. David Coleman, the creator of CCSS, after all, didn’t become the head of the College Board (the holy grail of American high-stakes testing) soon after that rollout by accident.
Implicit in Kirp’s comment is the assumption that standards, no matter how they are created and no matter what they consist of, are themselves a reasonable goal. That’s about as meaningless as saying happiness is a goal. Sure, but what is happiness? What if the things that make you happy don’t do it for me? “Standards,” like “happiness,” is a generalization. It does not follow that the specific pieces making up what is called a specific “standard” can be rationalized into a universal of any utility. Furthermore, a universal standard, to be universally accepted, would have to have at least a bit of the universal in its development. CCSS does not. It is the vision of a small group that has been ‘rolled out’ onto the rest of us. As an English professor who has worked with a high school to develop a CCSS-compliant curriculum, I can say for certain that the English Language Arts “standards” for CCSS do not reflect current practice or belief within the discipline. I see no sign that college professors contributed their expertise to help CCSS “create” college-ready high-school graduates.
To create real and useful standards (if standardized education should even be the goal), one would have to take into account all sorts of constituencies for those standards–not even just college professors. What are the standards necessary for participation in a democracy, and who should be asked to define them? What skills can we expect from high-school graduates, and who should determine them? These and other questions need to be addressed before the standards themselves are created–and they were not, not publicly, at least, with CCSS. And the standards, too, need to be created in public through a process that includes as many constituencies as possible.
And that’s only if we agree that universal standards are, themselves, desirable. Maybe standards need to be much more personal, as is happiness. Maybe one size does not fit all. I chose the college I attended precisely because it did not have exactly the same expectations from students as every other college. Though CCSS claims not to determine curriculum, it certainly carries assumptions that have an impact on curriculum development, assumptions that, if CCSS is successful, will make education an assembly line, with parts (students) manufactured in one school identical to those of another, and either fitting perfectly into the higher-education machine (which is also heading in a CCSS-like direction through its current mania for “outcomes”).
Standardization may be a good thing in manufacturing. It does not follow that it is always good for education. I know, “standards” and “standardization” are not really the same thing. In this case, however, I think maybe they are.
There are, of course, certain skills that everyone should gain. These, however, are not the totality of an education, be it one that stops at high school or that proceeds on to college and beyond. And not even these are universally agreed upon. Again, if we are to insist on standards, we first need to hammer out the “why” and the “what.” Then we can turn our attention to the details. CCSS started with the details; its only rationale seems to have been that standards are, on their face, good, simply by the fact of being standards, so its creators worked from there.
Though the current tactic of education “reformers” is to try to separate CCSS from high-stakes testing, their’s is, I think, a doomed task. Universal standards cannot be universal without universal assessment, and we are a long way from developing assessment tools that can work the same everywhere outside of quantifiable standardized tests. As things stand, CCSS cannot exist without high-stakes testing. Without the latter, the former has no more power than suggestion. So, there’s no sense in trying to save CCSS by pretending to jettison high-stakes testing. People already see through that.
Personally, I think we need to go back to the beginning on all of this. Scrap CCSS and see if we can develop flexible standards that have real purpose in student lives–and standards that can be assessed by means other than numeric ones. The standards need to be simple and able to take into account differing needs of different people in varied situations. They need to be meaningful in how they are assessed. And they need to be agreed upon by the American people, not rolled out upon them.
Then teachers will be able to concern themselves with education and students with learning.
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