Keep the Common Core

The Commonwealth’s decision to develop new standards is unwise

UPDATED: Dec. 13, 2015, 12:37 a.m.

Following a debate over the summer and fall, Massachusetts has abandoned the Common Core State Standards and instead will develop its own evaluations. The new evaluations will nonetheless be based partly on the Common Core, and Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester—who was a lead developer of Common Core—will have significant influence in drawing up them up. As Harvard students, we should care about standardized tests as a means of ensuring quality and equality in education, yielding more diverse college classes and better lives for students. In scrapping the Common Core, Massachusetts compromises this goal, turning back on its legacy as a pioneer in public education.

The Common Core is a set of education standards developed primarily by educators to establish basic benchmarks of what students in given grades should be learning. The Obama administration encouraged states to adopt the Common Core by tying it to Race to the Top funding. When Massachusetts first committed to the standards in 2010, the standards enjoyed bipartisan support in the Bay State—education reform advocates and the national affiliates of both major teachers unions initially lauded their adoption.

Since then, Common Core and testing in general have become fraught in Massachusetts and in other states. Conservatives argue that education should be local and that the standards overstep the federal government’s bounds; teachers unions have claimed that standardized testing leads to unfair judgments regarding school and teacher quality. Some critics say that the standards focus too much on critical thinking; others have seized on false reports of “common core worksheets” encouraging liberal values.

These concerns are misguided and troubling. At the heart of the Common Core—and of standardized testing in general—is the conviction that students should be assured a quality education regardless of zip code or income level. In practice, this maxim requires measurement of a given school’s success in teaching its students, even if it is possible for school districts with abundant resources to do well without testing. Without standards of some kind, we run the risk of graduating students from public high schools without giving them the education they deserve.

The state and federal governments have clear reason to work toward this goal, and anti-standard arguments based on federal overreach forget that the Common Core is encouraged with carrots, not sticks—the federal government is allowed to dole out its funds as it pleases. Moreover, these goals of improving American public schools are central to the mission of this University as well.

The Bay State knows well the value of thoughtfully implemented standardized tests. Since its 1993 adoption of MCAS—its first standardized test system—Massachusetts has become known as the national leader in public education. Standardized test data has been used to improve funding structure, fine-tune curriculum, and identify districts that need greater support and state involvement. And while it is true that raw test scores should not be the sole measure of a teacher’s performance, that has not been the case in Massachusetts. Testing has not been perfect, but its overall impact is positive.

Massachusetts has not decided to abandon testing or standards entirely, yet the rhetoric around the decision is nonetheless troubling. Molly Jackson in the Christian Science Monitor speculated that the decision “may hasten the end of a high-stakes national testing era.” If that is the case, the state will be worse off: The Common Core is a good policy that furthers Massachusetts’ long-held goal of equal education. The state’s decision to scrap its implementation is a grave disappointment.

This editorial has been changed to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: Dec. 13

This editorial has been updated to clarify the nature of Massachusetts' decision to scrap use of the Common Core-aligned PARCC exam. The state will not develop its own new standards, but rather its own new test, which will be a hybrid of the state's current MCAS test and the Common Core-aligned PARCC test.

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