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Common Core: It Really Is All About the Tests (and Corporate Profits)

In response to my recent Huffington Post blogs critical of Common Core, some commentators have defended the Common Core and blamed opponents of high-stakes testing for distorting the public’s understanding of the benefits of the national standards. But when you look at the history of the push for national standards you realize Common Core is all about testing.

On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Education Bill at Hamilton High School in Ohio. In a speech at the signing ceremony, Bush laid out the basis for what would become Common Core. He also made clear the connection between his goals for education in the United States and the continual assessment of students. According to the president, the “first principle” of NCLB was “accountability” and he defined accountability as testing. “In return for federal dollars,” NCLB required states “design accountability systems to show parents and teachers whether or not children can read and write and add and subtract in grades three through eight.”

The president then explained to students in the audience that this meant testing. “The first way to solve a problem is to diagnose it. And so, what this bill says, it says every child can learn. And we want to know early, before it’s too late, whether or not a child has a problem in learning. I understand taking tests aren’t fun. Too bad. We need to know in America. We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education.”

Seven years later, as he was preparing to leave office, President Bush restated this same position on education, NCLB, and high-stakes testing in remarks delivered at the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Bush told the audience, “You know, 7 years ago today, I had the honor of signing a bill that forever changed America’s school systems. It was called the No Child Left Behind Act. I firmly believe that thanks to this law, more students are learning, an achievement gap is closing. And on this anniversary, I have come to talk about why we need to keep the law strong.”

For President Bush, or at least for his allies and speechwriters, the key to higher expectations remained increased testing. “How can you possibly determine whether a child can read at grade level if you don’t test? And for those who claim we’re teaching the test, uh-uh. We’re teaching a child to read so he or she can pass the test . . . Measurement is essential to success. . . . Measurement is the gateway to true reform, and measurement is the best way to ensure parental involvement.”

The problem with NCLB is that it was an ill-considered law. I am always suspicious when a bill has overwhelming bi-partisan support, especially in this age of partisan gridlock. NCLB passed the House of Representatives 384-45 and the Senate 91-8. Usually this means the law is either decorative or so benign no one expects it to have much impact. In this case, NCLB was passed in 2002, but its mandates were not scheduled to go into full effect until 2014, which meant politicians could take credit for championing educational reform but there was plenty of time for the public to forget about who was responsible for a bad law or for a new administration and Congress to modify it when it became necessary.

NCLB mandates, while they may have been well intentioned, are impossible to achieve. States are required to develop measurable objectives to be achieved by EVERY student (no child would be left behind), including EVERY child from an economically disadvantaged group, EVERY student with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, and EVERY English language learner. EVERY student in EVERY school throughout the state had to reach proficiency level by the 2013-2014 school year, or else states, districts, and schools would be in violation of the law. Penalties were set for states that did not comply. States were also required to design the measurement tools, tests, that would show they were achieving their measurable objectives, which gave them a possible out. If they set the goals very low and made the tests very easy, they might approach the EVERY requirement (notice how I repeat and capitalize EVERY).

As states raced to the bottom to lower the standard to avoid the implications of NCLB, Common Core was born. Its proponents argued that if tests were going to have any meaning, they would have to be based on a universal national standard and they would have to be standardized. Since you could not have content standards or tests, no one agreed on what should actually be taught, education and testing in the United States would only focus on reading and math skills. Forget everything else.

In an excellent article on Huffington Post, Joy Resmovits dissects the origins of Common Core. In 2006, a new bi-partisan group set out to create Common Core. It was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and supported by publishers who realized they could make a mint with the new standards by providing textbooks, test prep material, and the high-stakes tests. Among others, Gates lined up the not-for-profit foundation operated by the Pearson for-profit educational publishing corporation to support Common Core. Because it was developed through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core supporters thought they could claim it was a state led initiative, not the work of the federal government or the publishing industry. The advisory board included representatives from the College Board testing company and a group called ACT, which is also involved in creating and marketing high-stakes assessments. Mercedes Schneider, who carefully tracked the development of Common Core on her EduBlog, deutsch29, shows how Gates money was then spread around widely to influence universities, foundations, and state education departments to sign up in support of the initiative.

The Obama Administration now did its part. Race to the Top (RTTT) is the Obama Administration’s signature educational program. Originally it consisted of a voluntary competition by states for billions of dollars in federal Department of Education grants, but it evolved into a stick the federal government could use to force states to accept Common Core and Common Core-aligned, high-stakes tests, as well as charter schools, to receive waivers from the impossible to achieve Bush era No Child Left Behind mandates. The state of Washington was denied a NCLB waiver when it refused to require school districts to use student performance on the high-stakes tests in their evaluation of teachers.

The NCLB and RTTT laws were in place. The Common Core standards were written. Support for the standards was bought and paid for by Gates Foundation. Now publishers like Pearson stepped in to write and sell the assessments that President Bush had explained were the key to measurement, the key to the entire process.

On one of its websites, Pearson declared that its “close association with key authors and architects of the Common Core State Standards ensures that the spirit and pedagogical approach of the initiative is embodied in our professional development.” As a full service Common Core operation, not only does Pearson provide the assessments, but it delivers textbooks, test prep material, and online support. It is also produces the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests that will be administered by a consortium of a dozen states and the District of Columbia.

A lot of money was to be made by the testing industry thanks to Presidents Bush and Obama. As the Wall Street Journal and the Thomas Fordham Institute explained, the national cost for compliance with the Common Core standards would be between $1 billion to $8 billion and the profits would go almost directly to publishers. Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson’s K-12 division, virtually jumped for joy exclaiming, “It’s a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we’re involved in.” In an annual report to investors, Pearson highlighted how it provides tests to twenty-three states and also developed the online application for Common Core mandated assessments in a total of forty-five states. James Mason, a PARCC state leader who helped negotiate the contract with Pearson, told Education Week that depending on a “number of factors,” the Pearson contract with PARCC was of an “unprecedented scale.”

There may be aspects of the Common Core Standards that are useful to students and teachers. The problem is that student learning is just collateral damage in No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core. From the start, Common Core has always been primarily about corporate profits and high-stakes testing.