I said in my last blog that I might irritate opponents of the common core who cite Massachusetts as an example of a state that has sacrificed its higher educational standards in the face of federal government bribes and threats.
Here’s why. I’m worried that in opposing federal education bullying – a point on which I agree with common core opponents – they may be strengthening the hand of those elements of the educational establishment that simply oppose testing and the accountability that potentially accompanies testing.
A recent Heritage Foundation blog applauded Utah for dropping out of a common core testing consortium
When the fight for control over what is taught in American schools is won, Utah will be remembered for having fired the shot heard ’round the country’s classrooms and statehouses.
In a move that should inspire other state leaders concerned with the Obama Administration’s push to nationalize standards and tests through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the Utah State Board of Education voted 12–3 to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the national testing consortium the state joined as part of the its agreement to adopt national standards.
The same blog posting notes that:
While Utah still plans to implement the standards in the coming academic year, it will now choose from among various testing companies to measure the academic achievement of students, divesting the state from the federally funded testing consortium.
Choice is good. But I was struck by something that Fordham Institute spokesman (and Common Core supporter) Michael Petrilli told the Salt Lake Tribune:
Michael Petrilli, executive director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said last week before a visit to Salt Lake City that it seemed premature to pull out of the consortium before seeing how the tests turn out.
He said withdrawing would only mean less influence for Utah over the tests, “so if the concern is Utah doesn’t have enough control over its destiny, I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense.”
I’m not sure that Utah has sufficient clout to make a big difference in the consortium’s tests one way or another, so maybe the school board’s vote represents a blow for educational choice. And then again, maybe the school board is simply placating common core opponents. The common core standards themselves remain Utah education policy, at least for now.
What worries me is that either Utah will end up saddled with new standards – and the accompanying expenses, such as new textbooks and teacher training – yet will resist measuring whether students are meeting these standards . . . or that adopting the common core will turn out to mean offering lip service to educational reform while maintaining the status quo.
We may well admire the steps Massachusetts took to improve education, and the impressive results that state achieved without federal government pressure. But is Utah willing to travel down the same road , and engage in the tough, expensive, worthwhile task of writing comprehensive content-based standards and designing tests to determine whether students are learning what the state thinks they need to learn?
Here’s where the case for some kind of common standards becomes stronger. Writing and administering tests – especially good tests that measure higher order skills – is difficult and expensive. While I applaud Utah for resisting the federal government’s bullying tactics, and maybe the commercial pressures of testing consortia as well, it’s less clear to me that Utah should try to go it alone. Why not team up with like-minded states to share costs and expertise?
My concerns may be misplaced. Perhaps the school board is just trying to retain freedom to choose among competing tests, and is willing to sacrifice rather negligible influence over the test development process in exchange. Still, I wonder if the state school board’s next step will be a decision to save money (and spare themselves the ire of those who oppose more wide-spreading testing, publication of school test results, and accountability measures based on these results) and decide not to adopt ANY common core assessments.
Again, I have a lot of sympathy for common core opponents. But are they also status quo supporters? This remains to be seen.