Panelists seek ‘Cure for the Common Core’

Written by on October 15, 2014 in Neighborhood News - 3 Comments
Dr. Lisa Hansel says that tests of students’ skills often end up testing their subject knowledge, a different thing. - Photo by Stephen Babcock

Dr. Lisa Hansel says that tests of students’ skills often end up testing their subject knowledge, a different thing. – Photo by Stephen Babcock

For a trio of education experts who addressed a forum at Loyola University Maryland last week, the debate over the Common Core standards comes down to jelly beans and tree frogs.

In a recent study, students presented with a passage on jelly beans were able to easily comprehend it. Next, they were given a passage on tree frogs. Many of the same students struggled.

The difference, according to Dr. Lisa Hansel of the Core Knowledge Foundation, was not necessarily the students’ reading abilities. Instead, it was the knowledge base they brought to the passage.

“The only kids who could understand the passage on tree frogs were the ones who, somewhere in their young lives, had learned about tree frogs,” Hansel said.

With the introduction of the Common Core standards in classrooms across the country this school year, debate in the education community has been centered around the difficulty of the tests that assess the students’ adherence to the standards, and the way the grades on those exams reflect on the teachers and schools.

But the three panelists who spoke at Loyola University last week sought to address not the tests themselves, but what the students learn in the run-up to those tests. Titled “The Cure for the Common Core,” the speaking event was sponsored by the Baltimore Curriculum Project charter school network, which, in the southeast operates Wolfe Street Academy, Hampstead Hill Academy and City Springs Elementary/Middle School.

Focusing on the English Language Arts standards, the panelists argued that–as in the jelly beans vs. tree frogs example–there is a distinction between the skills tested and the knowledge that students bring in to the test.

“We’re very fixated on test scores, but we never talk about what students are taught,” Hansel said.

Unlike mathematics, the Common Core ELA standards do not set out standard works that each student should read. Instead, administrators and instructors are free to “tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms,” according to the Common Core website.

No matter what their individual plans, however, all students take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. Given in 23 states, including Maryland, the tests are a component of national evaluation criteria that require each school to achieve a standard called “Adequate Yearly Progress.”

The reading comprehension questions presented on the test actually become a test of the students’ knowledge, rather than skills, argued the panelists.

For those who want to know what it’s like to be a struggling fourth grade reader, panelist Robert Pondiscio offered the example of an adult reading a refrigerator warranty.

“It’s not that you suddenly became a bad reader, you’re just reading out of your depth,” said Pondiscio, a Senior Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Pondiscio’s example asserts that, no matter what their reading abilities, students who are not familiar with the content that is presented on the test will automatically be at a disadvantage.

“Kids will make inferences. What you want to teach kids is the information you’ll need in order to make the correct inference,” said Dr. Marcy Stein, a panelist and professor at University of Washington Tacoma.

Students could broaden their content knowledge with more time spent learning about science, art, music and other programs, said Pondiscio. Nationwide, however, the funding for instruction in many of those areas is dwindling.

“If you don’t give them all that stuff, because the reading comprehension is a reflection of your background knowledge, you’re going to make things, worse not better,” Pondiscio said.

Without options in school, that automatically puts many students from communities like Baltimore at a disadvantage. Students from poor backgrounds don’t get a chance to take trips to museums or have access to a broad array of books that help provide more of the knowledge–of tree frogs, perhaps–that would help them on reading comprehension sections, Hansel said.

“What you have essentially is, on average, the wealthier the children, the larger their vocabulary, and the larger their store of background knowledge,” she said.

Despite the inherent issues with testing, Pondiscio said he hopes Common Core can help put the focus back on the classroom as teachers and administrators devise better ways to meet the standards.

“If done well, it encourages, for the first time in my career, an earnest national discussion about what we expect our kids to learn in school all day,” he said.

by Stephen Babcock

3 Comments on "Panelists seek ‘Cure for the Common Core’"

  1. Phyllis October 19, 2014 at 8:18 am ·

    D. Matthews response is typical of someone who has only heard the criticisms of the Common Core, but has clearly not read them or has any actual understanding of the standards themselves. His example of the math issue has to do with HOW math is being taught, not about the STANDARDS which are WHAT children need to know. The standards are not about the memorization of things but being able to apply knowledge. See the actual math standards here:

    Also, there is no history Common Core, only English Language Arts ( If you read the standards, they are actually very reasonable and exactly what you’d want your children or someone who works for you to be able to do.

    What is being debated among academics (and, sadly, a distinction that most journalists fail to understand and make) is 1) the HOW of teaching the content which the Common Core specifically does NOT dictate, 2) how children will be tested on what they have learned.

    Competing schools of thought on how to teach have used Common Core as a reason to change the HOW of teaching (what they call pedagogy). In some cases, there’s been poor implementation and in other cases it’s simply a resistance to change. And testing is also very tricky when you’re trying to test process–the ability to read or do math.

    The debate reported on actually gets to a very fair point about how much prior knowledge dictates comprehension. Ironically, in his example of a refrigerator warranty though, the truth is that someone who graduates high school meeting the Common Core Standards should be able to read and understand the warranty. They may take a few tries, but they should be able to do it. You may say that you can’t understand a refrigerator warranty, but that’s the point: We need younger generations to be smarter.

    Read the Common Core Standards (even a sample) yourself. That way you are less likely to be manipulated by sound bites and people with their own agendas. Don’t let yourself become a political pawn.

  2. D. Matthews October 16, 2014 at 8:15 am ·

    Congratulations Baltimore. If you don’t get control back from this national Core monster, you will have more kids tuning out and dropping out. It is a disaster. The criticisms to date are mostly about the circuitous math equations that make no sense at all and only confuse. The real insidious nature of Common Core is laid out in the “new” history, where America is portrayed in a very negative light. Only someone hoping to “transform” America into something our forefathers wouldn’t even recognize would even consider such BS as worthy of being taught to impressionable kids. Good luck. You are fighting a David and Goliath type war.

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