Monday, April 18, 2016

The Problem with Common Core Math Standards

Here is a comment I wrote last year about my own experiences and thoughts on the Common Core math standards written on Diane Ravitch's blog: and some discussion that followed. Been thinking about the impact of the CCSS on my classroom a lot after administering the CCSS-aligned PARCC exam for the past two weeks....
To me, as a special educator trying to make sense of Common Core Math Standards for third and fourth graders, the problem arises in both the specifics- specific standards that are simply developmentally inappropriate for many (not all) kids-and the sheer amount of standards. Here in Illinois, our old standards were about 7 pages for PK-12 and not even dense text. The old standards covered multiple grades (early elementary, intermediate elementary, middle grades etc….) not individual grade levels. They were outlines, general guidelines to show what topics to cover. Different curricula and individual teachers had a lot of leeway in deciding how to tackle those topics.
The Common Core standards, on the other hand, are 52 pages long for math alone! They are highly prescriptive and require very specific teaching techniques. For example, for third graders (these are 8 years olds!) one standard says,
“CC.3.OA.8 Solve problems involving the four operations, and identify and explain patterns in arithmetic. Solve two-step word problems using the four operations. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding. (This standard is limited to problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers; students should know how to perform operations in the conventional order when there are no parentheses to specify a particular order (Order of Operations).)” 
These are some really hard concepts for kids many of whom developmentally are still thinking concretely. Say nothing about our students with special needs. And we’re asking them to do straight-up algebra. There are also multiple concepts in this one standard: mastery of all four operations, two-step word problems, creating algebraic expressions, rounding answers, and using mental math strategies. Seriously, this is ridiculous! By forcing this kind of complicated and abstract thought on kids who aren’t ready will make kids turn off to learning. And just wait ‘til you see the tests like PARCC that accompany these standards. They looked like college course exams instead of tests for elementary students.
Let’s talk about the amount of standards. For third grade alone, there are 35 of these complicated standards. There are less than 37 weeks of school in the Chicago Public Schools calendar, and in schools like mine, up to 15 weeks of that time is interrupted due to testing. The pacing is way too fast for many kids. The amount of standards required per grade level leads to a whirlwind of concepts being thrown at kids who are often aren’t ready for them even if they were given sufficient time.
And my kids with special needs are especially damaged by these standards. Their education is being warped in order to comply with these federal mandates. Teachers everywhere feel the tension around teaching concepts we know kids aren’t ready for, and what we’re being forced to do every day just to keep our jobs. The Chicago Public Schools IEP system won’t even let us put in standards from lower grade levels for our students to work on-they say it has to be the chronological grade level of the child regardless of where they are currently functioning.
I’m tired of people saying, what’s wrong with the “mathematical practices”? Nothing, if that’s all the standards were. It’s the other 52 pages that is harming students, especially in the younger grades and kids with special learning needs. There were no elementary teachers or special educators included in developing these standards, which is very evident in practice.
Common Core sets kids up to fail. That’s not the kind of teaching I believe in.
 Here is a comment written in response:
  • Katie,
    I appreciate the frustration you are expressing. The CC standards are a long document. When you actually look at the number of pages for each grade level, it is actually much more manageable although certainly not as meager as 7 pages for all the grades–which sounds to me more like a list of topics rather than standards.
    My experience is this:
    — CC is new and teachers/parents are having a hard time changing to what is new
    –the math is particularly daunting to educators who have relied on their own algorithms rather than a clear conceptual understanding of what those algorithms do
    –making the switch requires really good and ONGOING professional development to help teachers along with the unfamiliar parts of the standards
    –many materials claiming to be Common Core are confusing the issue and making it harder for teachers by providing pages of materials that actually confuse rather than help with conceptual understanding
    –many textbooks over-teach what is actually required and if teachers follow those texts page by page, they will be overwhelmed and frustrated
    –Common Core is sometimes being confused with testing as accountability and although many proponents of one are proponents of the other, they are not the same thing
    I hope you will give Common Core math more time for you to digest it. Try things out without being too hard on yourself. Some of your special ed kiddos will take to concepts and LOVE them. Others will certainly respond better to learning the steps of an algorithm. Special Education is always the hardest area of implementation and I respect what you do immensely.
  • @educhange Thank you for your thoughtful comment, but I disagree. I don’t need more professional development in order to teach developmentally inappropriate standards. And no one ever mentions the pacing required to cover everything-it leaves our kids with disabilities far behind. In fact, since the general education curriculum has changed so significantly, myself and many colleagues are having to rethink Least Restrictive placements for some students with disabilities. I teach special education at a Title 1 neighborhood school on the south side of Chicago, so my students are often some of the most vulnerable kids in our system. And Common Core is harming them. We are seeing behavioral and academic consequences to implementing an experimental, inappropriate set of standards.
    But to take a step back, we know Common Core was not primarily written or pushed by educators, but by the testing industry and proponents of neoliberal education reform. Seem from that point of view, where schools like mine need to “fail” in order to promote privatization and to extract profit from our public K-12 system, the Common Core’s difficulties are not a fluke, but done by design.

PARCC is the Worst Test I've Ever Seen

Here are some more thoughts on the PARCC test:

I administered the test to third and fourth graders with disabilities (8 & 9 years olds.)

The PARCC reading passages are ridiculously long. After I argued my way into being able to provide the accommodation of oral reading for certain students with disabilities, I immediately regretted that decision as just reading the passages and questions was a ridiculously arduous task. Even I, as an adult, felt fatigued from reading out loud the over three page essays, and there were up to three of these passages per testing session. And the texts were all at least one, possibly more, grade levels above the year I was testing. Every. Single. One. Some of the adult-level vocabulary even made me stumble a few times. And there were a number of foreign words in some texts. And I'm not talking Spanish. Why? Why? Also, even though the passages were many pages long, there were no pictures to help children place text (other standardized tests for younger kids often provide some picture support.)

Many of the passages also used excerpts from real popular young people's literature, giving a huge advantage to any student who happened to read that novel. Since they were excerpts, though, this also meant that students were reading completely acontextual passages that SHOULD be in a context. They were parts of a novel, after all. One passage I read was from a favorite book, but used for this purpose completely destroyed that story. Plus, the story was set in a different country and time period yet the kids were given NO BACKGROUND on any of it. 

All the passages I read were also incredibly biased-both in terms of being truly racist tests but also in terms of bias towards affluence. They covered topics that were so obscure, or so obviously tied to wealth and the ability to travel, that I wanted to pull my hair out. Horrible choices. Certainly nothing that my African-American students in the inner city my could relate to, and as it was a testing setting, there was no way to give even a few simple background facts to help the kids place the stories. Some passages were even borderline American propaganda-driveling over American symbols or White Western history, that my school's relatively Afrocentric curriculum definitely did not cover. 

Then the questions asked of the students were horribly, like worse than I've ever seen, ambiguous. The possible answers were very closely related and you could easily make an argument for more than one correct response. In fact, in some questions, they asked for more than one response, which was a confusing format. Also, for each and every response, there were two parts, the first a general answer and the second a quote from the text that "proved your response." Talk about confusing! 

And then there was the essay. This was were I want to stop tearing my own hair and start tearing the damn test. Multiple parts, demanding dialogue evidence and use of literary language. And more complicated than essays I've written at the college level. I do not exaggerate. For eight and nine years olds with disabilities who can barely write a sentence. I got the accommodation to scribe for my students, but even that was a joke. I read the questions, and the kids just spouted off random answers that proved they had no idea whatsoever about what the passages were about. But why would they? We would NEVER read three pages of text unsupported without context in my classroom!

Some teachers also reported that the passages on the test were the same as last year, perhaps adding to the super strict testing policies. Probably field testing. Using our kids as guinea pigs for Pearson's profit.

After giving these tests to students in the morning, my classroom would descend into chaos by the afternoon. The kids were exhausted, their usual schedule and routines completely disrupted. They were irritable, and at one point, one girl with a severe emotional disability began to cry for about an hour, as in wailing tears. The staff kept saying, "Shh...classrooms are still testing!" as if that were the problem. Another girl had a temper tantrum mid-test, I had to remind the folks helping to administer the exam to just stop the test! No reason for pushing kids to meltdowns. My student with Autism stopped coming to school altogether. This child already had attendance issues, but after one day of testing, he never showed up again for nearly a week and a half. (Definitely a smart choice, on the kid's part. They'll still try to make him do make-ups, though.) Other students were snapping at one another like I've never seen and even the staff had short tempers, including myself.

I was so upset after administering this test that I ended up calling in sick as my mental health was honestly being affected. I'm not sure I'll be able to build up trust again with my students. SEVEN frickin' days of this nonsense. Kids were so spent, I allowed semi-structured independent work sessions each afternoon after testing. No formal teaching/learning happened in my classroom for two weeks. And this test doesn't even count! The test that actually counts starts just after Spring Break. YET MORE TESTING for my fragile learners!!

PARCC is truly the worst test I've ever seen for young kids. And I am no fan of ANY standardized test. But I feel dirty after administering this stinking bag of rot.