Evidence Please: The Common Core in Action

April 18, 2014

UPDATED: The New York Times' David Brooks took to the pages today to defend Common Core, reminding readers that: "school standards are not curricula. They do not determine what students read or how teachers should teach. They are the goals for what students should know at the end of each grade."

This was a state-led effort, supported by employers and financed by private foundations. This was not a federal effort, though the Obama administration did encourage states to embrace the new standards.

 The Common Core State Standards are being implemented in 44 states and the District of Columbia and have certainly not lacked media attention through the process. Many wonder how Common Core will change education, expressing skepticism on whether these new standards could actually contain the appropriate rigor for the student and drive the teaching of useful life skills instead of mere tricks to pass a test. As the Common Core’s assessment consortia—Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—begin to roll out field tests this spring, National Public Radio (NPR) explored the issues of rigor and testing, reporting its findings on the April 9th Morning Edition program.

In the first segment, reporter Charlotte Albright visited an 8th grade classroom in Vermont to observe the Common Core in action. On that day, students beginning a history unit on the Holocaust were tasked with comparing two documents: a scholarly article about the dangers of distorting scientific facts, and Saxe’s parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. After reading both, one student theorized that in these cases, “instead of science controlling what people think, what people think is controlling science.” This kind of interdisciplinary analysis is exactly what the Common Core is trying to implement into classrooms.

By utilizing science, literature, and history, these students gained a more holistic understanding of what living in late 1930s Germany may have been like. These new standards are all about, “making sure kids are able to form ideas about what they read and to support those ideas in writing, with evidence,” said NPR’s Morning Edition host, David Greene.

But what does this mean for the big test at the end of the year? Putting the Common Core to the test, NPR correspondent Cory Turner took a PARCC exam to evaluate what differentiates these assessments from its predecessors. Turner found that compared to previous standardized tests, this aligned assessment raises the bar for reading comprehension and critical thinking.

Essay prompts under previous tests such as "Imagine you're the principal for the day. What would you do and why?" evaluated mechanics and structure, but lacked the ability to measure applied knowledge or analytical skills. Educational Testing Service director Nancy Doorey explains, “Kids were graduating high school and going into community college or the university and finding that the college-level texts are way too difficult."

The replacement assessments—such as PARCC’s—expect students to compare and contrast different perspectives on a topic presented in both written and video forms, and write a coherent explanatory essay using evidence. Coincidentally, Turner decided not to complete this portion of the PARCC exam; after all, his comparative essay skills were already being put to real-world use while drafting his NPR segment.

These NPR reports demonstrate the reality of the Common Core State Standards; they are guidelines that use interdisciplinary methods to instill in students the skills needed to think critically and communicate those ideas to others with both creativity and data-driven corroboration. “[In the classroom], we are given a good scaffold to put down the evidence that we need, but the way that we put together and meld all those words together is up to us,” one 8th grader commented.

This skill of using evidentiary support to craft an argument is not a testing trick; it is a vital core competency that is useful to any child, no matter if they become the CEO equating stock options, the electrician analyzing blueprints, or the parent comparing grocery store products. By teaching our students to look for evidence, synthesize it, and form a well-supported opinion, we set our children up for success in and out of the classroom. 

See also: 

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Average is Over: How Delaware is Leading on Common Core

Carrie Winslow is associate manager of programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Center for Education and Workforce.