Government & Politics

March 4, 2014

Common Core’s greatest challenge: testing students’ ability to think

While legislatures debate whether to implement the Common Core State Standards. the beast that is troubling practitioners is the obligation to somehow test students, not on so much content as before but on the harder-to-measure ability to think. Complicating that mission is the pressure nationwide that teachers be evaluated to a significant degree by their students’ performance on state tests.

Let’s just say there is a great white whale haunting the reigning Kansas teacher of the year.

But the “Moby Dick” that is agonizing Leavenworth teacher Jeff Baxter, in the role of Capt. Ahab, is


the Common Core State Standards.

Not directly, anyway.

If anything, Common Core’s framework for learning targets — so hotly debated by opponents in both Kansas’ and Missouri’s statehouses again this spring — feels to Baxter like a once familiar and newly inviting sea.

He and other teachers and administrators at Leavenworth High School said they embrace Common Core’s guidance toward deeper exploration and thought-provoking classrooms.

“This is how I used to teach,” Baxter said, looking back some 45 years since a University of Kansas professor’s teaching of Herman Melville’s book propelled Baxter out of biology and into a life’s work teaching teenagers the wonder of reading and writing.

The beast that is troubling Common Core’s practitioners is the obligation to somehow test students, not on so much content as before but on the harder-to-measure ability to think.

Complicating that mission is the pressure nationwide that teachers be evaluated to a significant degree by their students’ performance on state tests.

The standards for mathematics and English language arts, adopted in 45 states and being implemented in every school district on either side of the state line in the Kansas City area, by and large make good sense to the educators putting them into practice.

Their support has helped backers of the standards in the state legislatures fend off attacks by opponents who call the standards a federal mandate, needlessly expensive and an infringement on the freedom of communities and their elected school boards.

The education community’s argument for the standards had been clean and clear, said Bill Schmidt, the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

The states’ governors and chief education officers championed the idea more than a decade ago to provide an alternative to the mishmash of state standards that too frequently demanded that students learn wide — but often shallow — seas of facts.

Schools needed to focus on fewer and deeper learning objectives — as do most of the world’s top education systems, Schmidt said. They needed targets that are challenging and logically organized, shared among states so they could compare performance and better compete in the world.

“But it’s gotten really mired,” Schmidt said, speaking recently to an audience of reporters at an Education Writers Association workshop in Los Angeles.

“(The concern about) assessments, and whether they’re used for teacher evaluations, is a totally different issue,” he said. “But all of that is driving the images people have about the Common Core.”

More than 200 people crowded into the Capitol rotunda in Jefferson City on Feb. 18, with parents and children among them holding homemade signs:

Kick Common Core out of class Stop Fed. Ed.

Bills are working through both the Missouri and Kansas legislatures seeking to compel the states to stop implementing the standards.

If the question is just about the standards themselves, Leavenworth teachers say they feel more creative freedom in their classrooms, even if the expectations in the standards are higher.

Anyone checking out what makes Baxter’s class tick will find an entire school bent on teaching useful and purposeful literacy. They are teaching reading and writing across disciplines, including physical education. They are sharing strategies in composition, fiction and nonfiction throughout the school.

It helps in all classes, 17-year-old Leavenworth junior Katie Henderson said.

“It helps me with studying,” she said. “The Cornell Notes help.”

In the Cornell note-taking process, students use columned pages to pair questions and key words with their notes and write summaries.

Angelena Harris, 16, keeps reading strategies in foldable reminder cards.

“What does the author want us to know?” she said. “What do I need to remember? What else do I want to know?”

Students like Juwan Potts, 16, who said he had been struggling, are improving performance in a school that has driven up the percentage of students reading at proficient or better to 90 percent from 67 percent five years ago. That includes closing the gap with economically disadvantaged students, with the percentage of proficient readers rising from 45.7 to 87.2, and with black students, rising from 34.4 to 85.5 percent.

“I’m reading more,” Potts said. “I’m understanding more. My grades are increasing. Teachers are calling on me more.”

There is a “constant celebration of the culture,” reading strategies teacher Karen Wolken said. “History teachers are teaching differently. Math notes are all in the Cornell style.”

Even when teaching fictional literature classics, strategies have changed more to the way Baxter has long been teaching his students.

“It’s not about the story or knowing the plot,” Baxter said.

Like many strong teachers, Baxter has pushed to get his students thinking about the world the author was writing into. He displays passages from early drafts of a work like “Moby Dick” alongside the published work, showing the changes and debating the author’s choices.

Then he sets them to writing their own.

“That’s the power of it,” he said. “It’s about the language. It’s about the



Common Core doesn’t determine Baxter’s curriculum. The instructional ideas and approaches he uses are his. But now the standards Kansas expects of his students align better with what he has been trying to accomplish all along.

Testing all of this is a real puzzle. Nothing causes more consternation than creating purposeful exam questions.

“Our minds are blown trying to figure out how far we can push kids,” California math teacher Stephanie Erickson said.

She and her two colleagues at Glendale High School in Los Angeles County are alums of the Math for America Los Angeles fellowship program at the University of Southern California.

Their classrooms put students to work in teams, thinking systematically, applying math across disciplines to real problems — the kind of skills Common Core also expects.

They know that the companies creating state tests are dealing with the same hurdles the teachers confront with their own exams.

Their work embraces “the importance of having a higher level of thinking,” teacher Sarah Morrison said. “But how these kids get there is a different journey for every one of them. How do you assess that in a standardized way?”

New standardized testing under Common Core is due in Missouri and Kansas in 2015. The test items are complicated, and they will be computerized, but they can’t be scored just by machines. Missouri is increasing its testing budget by $15.8 million and Kansas by $1.6 million.

Some states that already have begun new testing have been through a shock, with a trend of lower initial scores adding stress as schools try to sustain confidence in the new standards, inside and outside the school.

“That’s the unknown,” Leavenworth High School Principal Thomas Barry said. “We have to somehow look at student results with quantitative measures.”

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