Common Core: Will Testing Be Its Fatal Flaw?

In this four-part series, award-winning reporter Peg Tyre examines how the controversial Common Core Standards will impact American education. We’ll explore the sweeping new goals of the initiative, how teachers are preparing for the changeover—and what's causing critics to sound the alarm.

If you’ve read the last three installments in this series on the Common Core, you’ve acquired a quick and dirty summary of what is about to happen in our schools.

And careful readers will note that while there are plenty of doubters and reasonable criticisms, there are a lot of people—including me—who are hoping that once the kinks are out of the implementation, the Common Core will be an overdue step in the right direction.

The hope is that it will provide standardizing curriculum across most of the nation and encourage teachers to strive to teach our children in a way that produces deeper learning.



The biggest flaw with the Common Core—and the fissure that is about to come into focus because of it—is when it comes to school, the time-worn axiom is correct: What gets tested, gets taught. And the assessment part of the Common Core is giving even its most fervent supporters pause.

We are—in good and bad ways—obsessed with testing.

So, what’s the problem? Well, as I pointed out earlier, tests are the tail that wags the dog of education, especially in our current “age of accountability.” We are—in good and bad ways—obsessed with testing.

Around the time the state’s governors were signing on to the Common Core, and issuing a lot of proclamations about their hopes for improvement, the federal government released a call for proposals on how to test for the darn thing.

They offered $350 million to the group (or groups) that could figure it out. That set off a big alarm for conservatives, who were already stomping around complaining that under a little-known set of rules known the U.S. Constitution, the federal government could not set a national curriculum.

And with the federal government paying for the tests, it looked a bit too much like that’s exactly what our friends in Washington, D.C. were doing. For better or worse, their foot-stomping (and lawsuits) came to naught, and after some hand-wringing and breath-holding, two consortiums emerged to devise tests for the Common Core.  

Since then, just about everyone in the education business, from the state’s school chiefs right down to a child’s principal and teacher, have been trying to figure out what the heck is on those tests, how they are going to work, and how best to prepare the kids to pass them. 

However, the two consortiums didn’t come to the party very well prepared. In the rush-rush to adopt the Common Core, there were a lot of great ideas for this new generation of tests—Measuring deeper learning! Less time spent on test prep! Computerized testing! Instant results!—which were being thrown around.

Now, two years down the line, reality is setting in and some uncomfortable details about the Common Core Assessments are starting to emerge.

For starters, since those newfangled tests are supposed to be taken on computers, schools need to buy more technology.

Now these are the classrooms in the very same schools that ask parents to buy Kleenex and construction paper and don’t have money enough to keep their libraries open. Suddenly, the Common Core testing is starting to look like a big financial drain.  

The tests seek to be versatile, maybe too versatile. To that end, there will be two components given at different times in the year. Third graders will spend eight hours taking tests for the Common Core, while eighth graders are set for 9.5 hours.

If the Common Core tests are introduced along with special state or district-devised “tests to prepare you for the tests,” our kids could be in serious trouble.

For some students, especially ones in test-happy states, the new generation of testing might actually reduce the hours per school year spent taking tests. But if the Common Core tests are introduced along with special state or district-devised “tests to prepare you for the tests,” our kids could be in serious trouble.

And more testing means less learning.

The rollout of the Common Core assessments may infuriate everyone. In some states, the assessments are being given before teachers start teaching to the Common Core. When it happened in Kentucky, about a third of the kids who were proficient in reading and math dropped to below proficient.

So imagine, you send you child to school one year and he’s doing okay. Next year, with nothing changed but the test, you find he’s behind the curve. As a parent, how are you supposed to understand that? What does it do to teachers (many of whom, over protest, are getting their evaluations tied to test scores). How about our views of our local schools? Not good, right?

Since the fiasco in Kentucky, education officials all over the country have been like Chicken Little, warning people, your kids are going to seem dumber for a while, but really, it’s to make them smarter. That’s a pretty convoluted message—and one I’m guessing very few Moms and Dads are going to want to hear.

There are some smart people—even Common Core supporters!—who worry that when testing for the Common Core really gets going in the 2014-2015 school year, it will prove so politically unpalatable and unpopular that states will begin to withdraw from the Common Core and the whole expensive undertaking will end up in a smoldering pile.

It’s hard to predict the future. And to be sure, this would be a great shame. Without a doubt, though, when it comes to Common Core assessment, we’re in for a rough ride.

Peg Tyre is the author of two bestselling books on education, The Trouble With Boys and The Good School, and is a sought after speaker on educational topics. She has written about education for The New York Times, The Atlantic,, Newsweek and spent three years as a correspondent for CNN. Currently, she serves as director of strategy for the Edwin Gould Foundation, which invests in organizations that get low-income children to and through college. @pegtyre |