No time to slow down on Common Core

On Board Online • May 13, 2013

By Merryl H. Tisch
Chancellor, NY State Board of Regents

In late April, we reached a major milestone in our state’s education reform agenda: elementary and middle school students took new state math and reading tests designed around the Common Core learning standards, rigorous new benchmarks for measuring college and career readiness. The Board of Regents adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, because we believed then as we do now that these standards will allow us finally to get a clear picture of how our students’ progress stacks up against the challenges they’ll face in the wider world – and against the progress of students in other communities and countries who will be competing against them.

There is no question that this is the right strategy over the long term. There’s also no question that the introduction of the Common Core is going to cause a bit of in-flight turbulence – especially with respect to these first rounds of test-taking. As I have traveled to school districts, visiting classrooms across the state over the past month, I have heard concerns from educators, parents and students about the new format, stressing as it does critical thinking and close reading skills that in the past went under-emphasized. It’s only natural that there should be some uneasiness about the kind of results produced by a substantially different test. We have always expected that scores will drop initially. But that’s not a sign that our education community is doing something wrong. It’s a sign that we’re doing something right.

New York’s place in the global economy is absolutely critical, and that’s why we took a lead role in implementing the Common Core reforms, designing programs to strengthen the complex reasoning skills demanded by college and career training, just as 44 other states have done. We moved quickly to make the curriculum offerings and professional development materials available to all districts. We understood from the beginning that implementation would present new challenges. But it’s just as clear that, as with any worthy undertaking, the most important step of all is the first. Now that we have begun to translate our state’s commitment into action – now that we have taken those critical initial steps – we can begin the core task of shifting the way we teach and learn to meet our new, more stringent goals.

We should be proud that New York is moving quickly toward higher standards. The goal of Common Core, of course, is to bring American schools to the level of those in peer countries. As a nation, our standards were by any measure weak and uneven. Exams pegged to state standards only highlighted disturbing achievement gaps, as even many students who scored well on them performed poorly on the more rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The goal of these exams is not to teach to a new test – in fact, Common Core is a move away from teaching to any test – teachers should be encouraged to focus on new ways of teaching to higher expectations. The new assessments are an invaluable way to see where student learning is and is not aligning with the new standards, and where instruction needs improvement.

In classrooms around the state, exciting conversations are taking place. For the first time, students are exploring longer and more challenging texts, debating economic issues, applying math to engineering concepts, and working in teams to solve real-world problems. These are not curriculum mandates, but examples of good teaching, the kind that many educators have practiced for years.

We’re sensitive that the new round of tests struck some as too much, too soon, but the reality is our students are already being held accountable for the Common Core when they enter college or the workforce and are forced to take out student loans for remedial education.  The Common Core is about much more than testing. It’s about learning, and growing, keeping pace with an ever more competitive world, so that our students – and our economy – have the best possible shot at success. In that effort, there is no such thing as moving too fast.

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