EDITORIAL: Common Core mess gets worse

BREAKING NEWS GOT IN THE WAY this week. The headlines about the Common Core education standards dashed any hope of writing something on the topic that doesn’t sound like fully equipped tomcats debating real estate issues late at night.

Monday the Associated Press reported that product brand names were scattered through the text of questions on standardized state tests taken by students in grades three to eight. The tests are given in connection with the Common Core curriculum adopted by New York and over 40 other states. The AP quoted parents reporting what their kids saw on the tests–brands like Nike along with a company slogan, plus “Barbie, iPod, Mug Root Beer and Life Savers.”

It wasn’t a scoop. This story first broke a year ago, when the press got wind that tests created for the state Education Department (SED) by a company called Pearson were using previously published passages that included all sorts of brand names. In a statement, Pearson acknowledged that “brand names are referenced occasionally in the passages” and justified them as a way to meet the Common Core goal of helping students “read and analyze more authentic literature and workplace documents.”

Pearson, which has a reported $32-million contract with the state to produce the tests, says that neither it nor the state Education Department get paid to for placing product names in the test questions.

Well, Pearson is a multibillion-dollar, multinational publishing company, so why would it have any interest in developing a new revenue stream from fees for product placements in test questions?

But maybe the state has missed a big opportunity here. Parents might not be so critical of the Common Core if they saw it as a way to help pay for public schools. We could have Apple sponsor the 8th grade math test. Companies could underwrite everything down to individual bubbles on test sheets. Kids will ask each other: “Did you choose the Barbie or the Life Saver answer?”

It’s understandable that a big company like Pearson might assume good writing samples for elementary and middle school students must include brand names. And this isn’t a matter of protecting kids from all mention of the brands they see everywhere else they look. But you do have to wonder about the judgment of the people in charge of determining what’s on those standardized tests: the commissioner of education and the Board of Regents, who run SED.

As Pearson puts it, SED “has ultimate approval of passages used.” Did no one in authority in this state–neither the commissioner nor the chancellor of the Board of Regents, think to call this policy into question after it was first revealed a year ago? Or perhaps they think it’s a good approach. If so, they’ve confused management of their own investments with stewardship of our children’s education.

The other relevant headline this week was the decision by the company inBloom to close. inBloom had sold SED on a grand scheme to centralize all student data in the state, making it available through an inBloom “portal.” But after the flaws in the launch of the Common Core Initiative led to public outrage last fall, the legislature stepped in, saw another mishandled project of SED in the works and explicitly prohibited the use of state funds for inBloom.

The analysis of legitimately collected student data can help school administrators and communities measure progress and make better decisions. But handing over sensitive information about kids and their families to an independent third party amounted to reckless behavior. How reckless? Without New York’s involvement the company folded.

For all of this, the goals of Common Core are not the problem. They offer general guidelines for improving education in the classroom; the tests and data collection help monitor students’ progress. The Common Core standards are non-partisan (GOP governors played a key role in their development) and don’t steer schools to a particular set of learning materials. Teachers who know how to use the standards say they work.

Our problem is the inept, irresponsible performance of the commissioner of education and, though difficult to say, the Board of Regents. The legislature and governor need to make big changes in the Education Department starting at the top.

On May 20, when we vote on school budgets, remember that your district had no say in Common Core standards and follow-up tests. Those decisions were made in Albany by unelected officials. Don’t take out your frustration on school kids. Albany made this mess and only state lawmakers can fix it.

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