New York is one of dozens of states that adopted the Common Core standards in recent years. Soon, it will be a part of another trend: states conducting a formal review of them.
At least 18 states have taken steps to revise, rebrand, or review the standards since adopting them in 2010, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers. New York is set to begin its own review effort this year, prompted by state lawmakers who ordered Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to examine the state’s reading and math standards.
The move comes after a record number of students were estimated to have opted out of this year’s state tests, reflecting a growing backlash to standardized testing and concerns about the school and teacher evaluations that emerge from those scores. For Elia, who took over the state education department last month, the formal review offers a test for how she will respond to those concerns — and a chance to say the state is taking action.
“It allows everyone to have a voice, particularly the practitioners who are implementing standards in our schools,” Elia said last month.
Both critics and supporters of the standards say they welcome the scrutiny. Supporters say a careful look at the math and English language arts standards will affirm that New York should not abandon the guidelines, which outline the skills students should learn in English and math for each grade in order to eventually succeed in college or in a profession.
“The biggest win in a [Common Core] review is that the reviewers actually read the standards, some I’m sure for the first time,” said Ken Slentz, the superintendent of the Skaneateles Central Schools district in upstate New York who helped implement the standards as a deputy commissioner.
Critics say it will shine a light on problems with the standards, particularly the guidelines for learning in early grades. Kathleen Cashin, a member of the state’s education policymaking board who has long called for such a review, said reviewers need to examine how far the standards push New York’s youngest students.
“I’m not saying you don’t want rigor, but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s appropriate,” Cashin said. “You don’t ask a five-year-old to jump 10 feet high.”
Concerns that states and schools were not pushing students far enough were at the heart of the movement to get states to adopt common standards. In 2009, 86 percent of New York students in grades three through eight were said to be proficient in math and 77 percent proficient in English, but a much smaller share was deemed to have critical “college-ready.”
New York adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, along with 44 states and the District of Columbia. The federal government encouraged the move, which helped the state secure a $700 million grant for education.
The rollout of more challenging state tests and the introduction of new classroom materials over the next few years were both rocky. Proficiency rates on state tests dropped precipitously, and complaints about the state’s new teacher evaluation system, tied to the tests, have persisted.
Some states, like Florida and Indiana, have used a review process to revise or get rid of the standards altogether, although replacements have resembled the Common Core. But city and state officials in New York have so far stood by the standards themselves.
How Elia will conduct the review is not yet clear. State law requires her to “seek input from education stakeholders” and to complete the review by next summer, but the commissioner is otherwise free to direct the process.
Elia has offered some clues. In her public remarks about New York’s review, she has mentioned similar processes in Tennessee and Kentucky, where reviews have included a months-long public comment period, online surveys, and an analysis of the feedback by a smaller group of officials.
Kentucky dubbed its review the “academic standards challenge,” asking people to vote with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on each standard and to explain how it should be changed. Nearly 90 percent of respondents gave an overall “thumbs up” to the standards.
The public is more divided in Tennessee, where people were asked to “keep it,” “remove it,” or “replace it” for the standards. Of over 130,000 reviews, 55 percent opted to “keep it.” But officials charged with appointed members to a review committee are now disagreeing over whether its purpose is to repeal the standards or just to evaluate them, in a reflection of how polarizing the standards have become. (Neither state has offered formal recommendations yet.)
Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. that is supportive of the standards, has been tracking the review processes. The revised standards that have come out of many of them are similar to the Common Core, he noted.
“Most states are merely making tweaks because they are discovering that the Common Core are, in fact, well aligned with the research on college and career readiness,” Petrilli said. “It’s impossible to come up with college and career ready standards that look nothing like the Common Core.”
The standards for learning in earlier grades appear more ripe for substantive changes, however. In Kentucky, more than 70 percent of the “thumbs down” were for standards in kindergarten through third grades, according to feedback posted online.
The New York state teachers union, which is also reviewing the standards, has also raised concerns about the standards encouraging younger students to sit “for long periods of time for academic work — and missing out on play time, arts, music and other areas.”
Susan Neuman, an education professor at New York University and a specialist in early literacy development, said that the Common Core standards in early grades don’t appear to account for the order in which children build language comprehension skills.
Before ever trying to understand printed words, Neuman said, children have to develop their vocabulary through activities centered on speaking and listening. But kindergarten standards for those skills are “buried” within dozens standards centered on reading and writing, she said, which could lead teachers to teach literacy out of order.
“What good teaching should be doing is moving from the oral comprehension to the reading comprehension,” said Neuman. “But the way [the standards are] structured, you don’t see that right away.”
Lisa Siegman, principal of P.S. 3 in the West Village, said she thought the standards overemphasized reading and writing in early grades while leaving out a focus on what she calls “social learning”— the process by which students might observe science experiments or comment on one another’s art work.
But she also said that she encouraged her teachers to interpret the Common Core with flexibility.
“Just because something’s not in the standards doesn’t mean you can’t teach it,” Siegman said. “You create a situation where you teach the standards and you use your judgment.”