Sunday, January 31, 2016

New Jersey's Former Standards Are Better Than Common Core State Standards

Drs. Chris Tienken and Eunyoung Kim from Seton Hall University and Dr. Dario Sforza, a high school principal in East Rutherford, NJ, recently published, “A Comparison of Higher-Order Thinking Between the Common Core State Standards and the 2009 New Jersey Content Standards in High School”. You can read their article in AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice here. There has been "no qualitative analytical research…done to test the assumption that the CCSS are superior to previous state standards in the development of higher order thinking and creativity at the high school level.” 

For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the development of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and why we and many other states bothered to adopt them has been written about by many people. Among the most in-depth research has been from Louisiana teacher and education researcher, Mercedes Schneider. Read here, here, here, here, and here.   

The basics of the Why are simple. Under NCLB, all students (yes, really, ALL) were required to be proficient in grade level reading and math by 2014. Of course, that’s not possible. It never should have been put into law. Congress should have fixed that long before the looming deadline for compliance. Epic failures all around. 

Essentially circumventing federal requirements, USDOE introduced waivers to NCLB. In exchange for adopting the Common Core State Standards, having testing aligned to those standards, and development of teacher evaluations based on those standardized test scores, states could avoid NCLB penalties. New Jersey signed on, sight unseen. Feeling sick yet?  

Let's be really clear about this. The development of the standards was NOT driven by educational need. It was driven by political need. 

If you take a look at the composition of the work groups who developed the standards, you’ll find only five K-12 teachers out of 101 participants. You will find NOT ONE early childhood development or special education specialist either. You will find lots of people who worked for testing and publishing companies. The final insult was when Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, both, served on the Validation Committee and are content experts in ELA and math respectively, refused to sign off on the final product. Read about them and their objections here, and listen here.

NJDOE has invested a lot of time and money into pushing CCSS. They have made incredible claims about their value and how much it would propel the children of New Jersey to “college and career readiness,” a term that is still without definition. PARCC, the CCSS-aligned test, was allegedly so good, that when Dr. Tienken asked Bari Erlichson from NJDOE, "Is the test worth teaching to?" Ms. Erlichson replied, "Yes...How many days does it take to get ready for the PARCC exam? 180. That is the length of the school year." This exchange happened at an event in Ridgewood, NJ, in November 2014, hosted by The League of Women Voters. See the entire panel discussion here, their exchange begins at 1:18:34.  

That was incredibly high praise for the assumption of good curricula based on standards that still hadn't been vetted and for a test that NO ONE had seen. 

Last year, Governor Christie announced the creation of a task force to study the Common Core State Standards. They were given a very short period of time to take public input, review each standard, and return recommendations for change. The end result was, as expected, a sham. It’s not a reflection of the time parents and teachers on the task force spent reviewing and revising the standards. It certainly was not a reflection of the testimony provided to the task force, but rather the insufficient time frame for producing standards, a report, and the Commissioner's insistence that it would likely be a just a "tweak." The task force came back with a 15% change in the standards, which, magically, coincides with the requirements of PARCC…anything more than a 15% change in standards would require dropping PARCC assessments. 

I wrote about the composition of the task force here. I still have not gotten an answer to my question regarding PTO participation, in spite of help from State Board of Education President, Mark Biedron. So much for transparency from NJDOE.

So, how did Tienken, Kim, and Sforza evaluate and compare the standards? They used Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and you can find an in-depth description of their methodology beginning on page 14, and a description of the four levels of DOK on page 10. Link to their article, again, is here.

DOK levels are described in the article as:
Level 1 Recall: requires “recall a simple definition, term, or fact, or replicate procedure, or algorithm. 
Level 2 Skill/Concepts: students develop some mental connections and make decisions about how to set up to approach a problem or activity to produce a response, apply a recalled skill, or engage in literal comprehension. 
Level 3 Strategic Thinking: engage in planning, reasoning, constructing arguments,making conjectures, and/or providing evidence when producing a response and require students to do some original concepts or draw conclusions. 
Level 4 Extended Thinking: engage in complex planning, reasoning, and conjecturing, and to develop lines of argumentation. Items at this level require students to make multiple connections between several different key and complex concepts, inferencing, or connecting the dots to create a big picture generalization. 

What did the study show? Hope the reformy cheerleaders are sitting down. Keep in mind, they only compared the high school level standards: CCSSe vs. NJCCCS. Are you ready? From page 18:
"Overall, the high school Common Core State Standards in ELA and M contained fewer standards rated at DOK Levels 3 and 4 than the 2009 New Jersey high school standards in ELA and math. That is, the standards that NJ had in place prior to adopting the Common Core provided more of the Level 3 and 4 higher order skills cited in mainstream business and education publication as necessary capabilities for competing in a global economy."
To summarize their findings, pages 18-23:

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4


Hmmm...those numbers hardly suggest the far superior product we've been sold. Perhaps most damning in the article is this paragraph on page 26. 
"The results suggest that the previous versions of the NJ high school ELA and math standards included more complex, higher-order thinking and provided more opportunities to practice the types of thinking valued in the mainstream education reform literature as necessary to compete in the global economy. Although some have noted the CCSS as being more difficult than some previous states’ standards, difficulty is not a proxy for creativity and strategic thinking (e.g. Porter, McMaken, & Hwang, 2011). Convoluted prompts and questions and unclear portions of some standards do nothing to foster creative or strategic thinking (Wiggins, 2014)." 
Hard to say where I feel most disappointed. At the local level, I'm really tired of the Kool-Aid laden pep talks from supposed "experts" and "coaches". At the state level, NJDOE and State Board of Education, I'm tired of the gerbil wheel of spin that constantly comes out of their building. I'm tired of them having no accountability. I'm tired of parents and students having no voice. At the federal level, I'm tired of pretty much the same thing as the local and state levels. At state and federal levels I'm appalled at the amount of "philanthropic" money being tossed around and its influence on public policy, none of which addresses the most basic needs of many students.

In March 2014, Kevin Welner from the National Education Policy Center, had this to say about the adoption of CCSS in an article, The Lost Opportunity of the Common Core State Standards: 
"But the unfortunate reality is that whatever its potential benefits, the actual Common Core package will almost certainly exacerbate the policy failures of the past decade. Further, the linking of the Common Core to accountability regimes is a feature, not a bug. It is what was intended from the outset.
Importantly, the status quo approach involves a choice of one set of policies to the exclusion of another. When politicians opt for accountability and market-based privatization policies, they supersede policies that are grounded in best practices — evidence-based reforms that have succeeded in enhancing opportunities to learn.
In doing so, politicians seem willfully ignorant of the direct connection between opportunity and achievement. Our national opportunity gaps lead inexorably to our achievement gaps. Yet the test-based accountability policies still advocated by politicians disregard the opportunity side of the equation. Capacity building and supports are relegated to a small footnote within a long diatribe about mandated performance. The Marie Antoinettes of today proclaim, “Let them take tests,” callously brushing aside the needs of our children for intellectual nourishment."

The machine that churns out the This Is The Best Thing Ever! has to be stopped. Some really basic questions have to be answered. Maybe most important for parents is, at what point did you cede your voice and reason to the snake oil salesmen of college and career readiness? And then, what are you going to do about it? 

Those will be difficult questions for some. I can help with the second question. That one is easy. Opt Out of standardized testing. Stop feeding the machine. Force our legislators and departments of education, and our local districts, to truly create environments where our children can thrive. Please. Our children deserve so much better than this.


  1. Love this post! Thanks for compiling the links and telling the story in a clear, straightforward way. Parents knew CCSS was flawed, thanks also to Profs Tienken, Kim and Sforza for digging in and explaining how.

  2. Love this post! Thanks for compiling the links and telling the story in a clear, straightforward way. Parents knew CCSS was flawed, thanks also to Profs Tienken, Kim and Sforza for digging in and explaining how.