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Will Common Core testing limit opportunities for real learning?

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If you haven’t seen this PBS Newshour report on project-based learning at the King Middle School in Portland, Maine, you should.  It’s inspiring.

The report was produced by John Merrow’s group, Learning Matters, and Mr. Merrow uses it as a starting point for this post about the Common Core State Standards.  Here is the part of his post I would like to comment on (highlighting is mine):

“I am following the Common Core story with interest and am pleased that we are going to raise standards and challenge our students more….[Common Core] folks are using all the right words and saying all the right things.

…However, so far I have not seen anything that convinces me that our system is anywhere near ready to test for the skills and capabilities that we witnessed those 8th graders acquire at King Middle School.

If past is prologue, things that aren’t being tested won’t end up being taught. It’s not just kids who ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”  These days, when test scores determine which adults get fired, they’re probably the first ones to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”

If it’s not tested, then say goodbye to that King School program and others like it.

After all, what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?  To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.  We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.

This is a legitimate concern in many parts of the country, including Maine, where teacher evaluation has been turned into a crude club.  And I hear many New Hampshire teachers voicing the same concern.  But I think the New Hampshire teaching evaluation model represents the right kind of response to Mr. Merrow’s issue.

That’s because the evaluation model is centered on “student learning objectives” created in a way that makes achievement measurable whether or not the subject is assessed with a standardized test.  Learning to use student learning objectives may not be easy (skim page 11 on from this great presentation developed by the Newmarket School District – you’ll get a healthy respect for what’s involved) but it’s what we would want our schools to be doing anyway.  The New Hampshire Department of Education is figuring out how to do this on a state-wide basis (here).

And there are two more important benefits.  Setting student learning objectives would clearly support the kind of project-based learning that so exciting at King Middle School.  And, as a result, teaching and teaching evaluation would not be tied exclusively to high stakes testing.


  1. NH evals are better, however they still tie the eval. to the assessment. That’s a problem and it should be rejected. Teachers deserve better than an evaluation based on students who are assessed on non-academic behaviors.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “assessed on non-academic behaviors.” The degree of reliance on student achievement is a district choice and a negotiation with the teachers. And the student learning objectives can be developed by teachers. There will always be a risk of unfairness in teaching evaluations but for some portion to include a look at whether the students are learning seems fair enough. Right now, methods of doing that are inexact and will probably get better. Also, student performance would frequently, at least in the early grades, be applied to groups of teachers rather than individual teachers. So the impact is pretty modest in the end.

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