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May 17, 2015

Las Lomas students urged to skip Common Core tests; Opt-Out movement hits the East Bay




I have to confess that I have been woefully ignorant about all the fury and debate surrounding the new Common Core standards. Maybe it's because my son is a junior and he has less than two years left in which K-12 curriculum will have any bearing on his academic life. 


Nonetheless, I found myself doing a crash course on Common Core this weekend and an opposing Opt-Out Movement after my son came home Friday afternoon with a flier that had apparently been distributed at or near his campus. 



Since reading this flier and starting my crash course, my head is spinning, because, yes, there is lots of spin surrounding Common Core – and conspiracy theories, and misleading information as well as politicking, analysis, history and passionate debate on all sides about what's best for student learning and the state of American education.



My knowledge is still pretty incomplete but here are things I’ve cobbled together so far, starting with that flier.

Dated Friday, May 15, the flier explained that Common Core standardized testing, also known as Smarter Balanced testing, was to start Monday, and it urged Las Lomas juniors students to ask their parents to let them skip it. The tests would be administered this coming week -- two hours, Monday through Friday, starting at 8 a.m. 

"Remember," it said, "that we, as students, have a voice -- our education, of course."The flier then came with dire warnings about the tests, including "intimidation" tactics: "If you're unsure about optiing out, consider that a majority of teachers, students, instructors and alumni are opposed to such testing. ... Do not allow the school to 'intimidate' you into taking this test -- having seen such intimidation tactics used before against certain teachers -- the decision is entirely between you and your parents."

And because the technology used in the tests, and the tests themselves, are apparently new and experimental, the flier said, "many have gun to label the class of 2016 as the "guinea pig batch" for the testing.

How much is any of this true? Well … in trying to figure that out, I first had to brush up on some Common Core basics.

Common Core tests, known as Smarter Balanced assessments, began rolling out in California in March, according to EdSource. They are administered to students in grades 3-8 and 11, and they involve a battery of tests in English language arts and math that is designed to assess how well students are doing in those subjects, based on instruction they've received in Common Core standards. 

EdSource says the major instructional changes from Common Core include: a substantial increase in the amount of non-fiction reading and writing, with students expected to learn how to use evidence to back up written and oral arguments; a greater emphasis on collaborative activities; and the expectation that math students will not only be able to solve problems but explain how they did so.


All that sounds good. As a friend, who is much more knowledgeable about educational policy and curriculum, told me, Common Core is expected "to educate our children to do more critical thinking and problem solving, which was missing in the education that my two children and your son have just spent the past 12 years engaged in." 

Still, opposition to Common Core -- or really to the tests rolling out this year -- has been growing. The Associated Press reports that thousands of students across the country, with permission of their parents, are refusing to take the tests. 

The Opt-Out movement has just hit California, notably in districts with similar demographics to the Acalanes Union High School District.

EdSource reports that half of juniors at an affluent high school in Los Angeles County -- the Palos Verdes High School -- refused to take the test last month. Over in Palo Alto, about half of juniors at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools also opted out, according to Palo Alto Online. 

I had been familiar with Tea Party and Republican opposition to the Common Core roll-out, with activists calling it "Obama-core." In their mind, Common Core is a federal intrusion by a Democratic administration to twist public education for a certain political agenda.

Actually, I suspect that the flier distributed to Las Lomas students was produced by Opt-Out activists with ties to conservative groups. I could be wrong, of course, but some of the language and citations of certain Education Code sections, which they say give students the right to opt out, carry a hint of the misleading hyperbole that I've found typical of certain groups -- notably the Pacific Justice Institute, the conservative legal organization that was heavily involved in the recent, controversial effort by a small group of parents to ban Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education courses in the Acalanes Union High School District. 

But Pacific Justice Institute aside, I have also learned that the growing Opt-Out movement spans political agendas.  

"The Common Core standards have both allies and opponents on the right," says education historian Diane Ravitch in a speech to the Modern Language Association in January. "Tea Party groups at the grassroots level oppose the standards, claiming they will lead to a federal takeover of education. The standards also have allies and opponents on the left." 

The Opt-Out Movement is reaching non-Tea Party types in several ways.

First of all, it seems to have a huge appeal for parents and education experts, like Ravitch, who have become weary of what they believe is a high-stakes, standardized-testing culture that has taken over American K-12 education. 

Ravitch's speech raises concerns about how Common Core owes its history to George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama's Race to the Top federal initiatives. Those in turn were a response to the perception by politicians from the left and right, education policy makers and business leaders that American public education is a "major disaster" that won’t produce a globally competitive future workforce. The only salvation, these worriers believe, is a combination of school choice -- charter schools and vouchers -- and national standards and standardized testing. This testing, it is believed, will provide the data necessary to judge school quality and student achievement in order to make improvements.

But the result of this kind of thinking has been "a punitive regime of standardized testing on schools," Ravitch says. Both initiatives have pushed teachers to "teach to the tests,” which has been demoralizing for them and harmful to true student achievement. She adds: "No other nation in the world has inflicted so many changes or imposed so many mandates on its teachers and public schools as we have in the past dozen years. No other nation tests eery student every year as we do. ... Our students are the most over-tested in the world."

Another concern Common Core critics cite is that it is yet another expensive and largely untested and improperly vetted initiative of the education industrial complex, an initiative driven by corporations, philanthropies and business leaders, notably Bill Gates, with agendas driven by ego, ideology, political agendas, greed or a combination of all four.

A June 2014 Washington Post article, "How Bill Gates pulled off the Common Core revolution" says that Gates, through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, accomplished one of the "swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history. 

"The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards," the story says. "With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes."

The foundation spread money across the political spectrum, including to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education, which received about $5.2 million from the Gates Foundation since 2010. The Gates foundation also bankrolled, to the tune of almost $1 million, a think tank policy study that gave high marks to Common Core and said it was "very superior" to existing state standards." 

Common Core critics, including some teachers, question why someone like Bill Gates, who dropped out of college  and has no degree or training in education, gets to have so much influence over a national education policy. Is it just because he's really rich? These same critics say Gates' Microsoft Corporation and Pearson, the world’s largest educational publisher, stand to profit from selling the technology needed to administer Common Core testing to the nation's 15,000 school districts.

And, of course, with the Jeb Bush role in all this, Common Core has become a contentious issue in the 2016 presidential election with Bush taking heat from Fox News and other conservative outlets for his support.  

And there’s still more swirling around all this, including fears that are stoked in an American society that has become hyper-aware of the extent to which our national government and global corporations like Facebook and Google have used technology to gain access to our personal information for various purposes.

Opt-Out supporters in Palo Verdes said they were concerned the privacy of student data collected electronically during the tests. 

The flier distributed to Las Lomas students adds to those fears. In citing Education Code sections that give students the right to skip the tests, the wording of these sections could lead to the false impression that the data collected includes information about student's personal beliefs, and practices in sex, family life, morality and religion.  

No, the Smarter Balanced tests won’t be collecting that kind of personal data, and no private student data will go into any national database, according to a story in the Miami Herald.

"Bottom line,” the Herald story says, “states have been collecting data on students -- and sharing it in the aggregate with the U.S. Department of Education -- long before Common Core.”

While school districts collect students' names, the classes in which they are enrolled, their reading and math proficiency and whether they graduated on time, student names and other personal data isn't shared with the federal government, the story says. 

Probably the real, bottom-line issue for Las Lomas parents and juniors is how relevant this test is for individual student learning and their efforts to prepare for the future, including college. 

For one thing, the tests will take up more than eight hours of class time this coming week.

And could 11th graders use that time more productively, especially if they haven’t had much exposure to the Common Core learning standards on which they will be tested?

Relevance was another big issue for parents and students at Palos Verdes High School. Ninety-eight percent of students there go to college, according to  EdSource, and some parents and students questioned how taking this test will help students' achieve their college-bound goals. The Palos Verdes superintendent said 11th graders opting out used that time to study for Advanced Placement tests. 

My savvy friend said: "I feel the test results will be meaningless to judge the Common Core until the current second, third and fourth graders are freshmen in high school when they've been within the Common Core educational system for the length of their education ... unless I am missing something." 



It has been said that one academic benefit for juniors taking the test is that those who perform at "Achievement Level 4" will be exempt from taking placement courses at California State University or community college campuses that determine whether they can skip remedial courses. But the Ed-Source story says there are other ways for students to demonstrate they don't need to take remedial classes once they get to those schools. 

Opt-Out activitists, I've learned, have been very strategic in all parts of the country in taking their message directly to 11th-grade students. Students are getting the message via fliers like the one distributed to Las Lomas students or through Facebook posts. You could say that these students have reached an age when they want to have a lot of input on how they will spend their academic time. 


As I said, I am new to all this, and I’m not sure what I think. 

It will be interesting to see how many 11th graders at Las Lomas or other schools in the Acalanes Union High School District received these fliers and whether they will buy the message and opt out, whether the information will raise questions and thoughtful discussion in their families, or whether the parents and their kids will decide to ignore the fliers and just do the tests. 

And just because a percentage of students skip the tests, does that challenge the fundamental value of Common Core? Probably not. My friend, who has concerns about Bill Gates' involvement and the profit-making motives behind aspects of Common Core's implementation, still has seen value in the standards being adopted, at least locally. 

She has seen teachers being "reinvigorated" by Common Core. "Many of those who were complacent in their teaching are now being challenged and required to reinvest in their work and those who aren't up to the test will retire and leave the teaching profession," she says. "That is a win-win for our students."



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