• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Unfortunately, I Am Ready for the Common Core

CCSS will not result in students being better prepared for the college writing classroom.

March 15, 2015

Writing recently in Politico, education reporter Allie Grasgreen reported that colleges and universities seem unprepared for the incoming wave of students educated according to the Common Core State Standards.

The developers and supporters of CCSS claim that these “higher” standards will result in students in need of different curriculum at the college level. Standards dedicated to college and career prep starting in kindergarten must result in better students needing more advanced instruction, right?

Heh. Heh.

In truth, I feel well-prepared for these students because, despite the claims of the supporters of CCSS, when it comes to the first-year writing classroom there will be no appreciable difference between the CCSS generation of students, and those who matriculated under the previous accountability regime of No Child Left Behind.

While the increased emphasis on argument and evidence articulated in the CCSS English Language Arts standards should, in theory, better align with the demands I put on students, the truth is, as long as students are herded through standardized assessments such as the PARCC exam, they will continue to be ill-prepared for the first-year writing classroom.

It’s actually hard to pick the most important reason the CCSS standards and their concomitant assessments will inevitably fall short of the goals of the current wave of school reformers.

Maybe it’s because there’s no provision in the assessments for having a sudden insight while taking a shower, or walking the dog, or having a conversation with a friend, or when laying in bed just after waking, all moments that played a part in the writing of this very blog post.

As long as the PARCC assessments are timed, limited to 45 minutes or an hour per essay – and there is no scenario under which the providers of these tests will allow otherwise[1] – they will be terrible tests of students’ readiness for the college writing classroom.

In my course (and I believe my approach is reasonably typical) the shortest amount of time students have between the initiation of an assignment and its completion is one week. The researched essay is six weeks from start to finish. 

The college writing classroom demands multiple drafts as part of a recursive process. A successfully completed assignment often requires going back to the drawing board after an initial draft, and results in a final draft that may bear only a passing resemblance to the initial effort. This kind of writing and thinking is simply not possible in a standardized test because it is not standardizable.

The other significant, and intractable, shortcoming of the PARCC test is that the writing students are asked to do is divorced from a genuine rhetorical situation. The core of my writing course is to write to a specific audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge.

Like all standardized writing assessments, on the PARCC exam, students write to an unseen authority that is, in reality, exam graders earning $13 an hour spending single-digit minutes per essay to render a score, who will be supplanted by an algorithm just as soon as Pearson can develop automated-grading technology.

Because of the necessity of standardizing assessment, so too must the students standardize their writing by writing five-paragraph essays.

They will never write a five-paragraph essay in my class.

So, I feel as though I’m well-prepared for this next wave of students, even as they are not well-prepared for me and my course. The PARCC exam will give them no practice with developing a topic from their own interests. It will not require them to do deep revision of a project that evolves over a period of weeks and is informed by feedback from their peers and instructor.

They will not have practice at tailoring their communication to a specific audience, occasion, and purpose.

They will struggle with the transition to crafting custom pieces of writing drawn from their own interests because the PARCC exam asks them to instead analyze whatever Pearson decides to put in front of them on the occasion of the test. Students are conditioned to wait for someone else to tell them what matters, rather than pursing these things for themselves. Never mind that what the authorities are saying matters is colossally boring. That’s just how school works.

As long as we’re testing the non-standardizable with standardized tests, we are hamstringing student development, and when they reach my classroom they will not require remediation, so much as reorientation. The biggest hurdle will be to reignite the curiosity with which they once approached the world. That the implementation of CCSS involves driving college prep down to the kindergarten level, causing students to hate school at younger and younger ages, this will likely get more difficult with time.

So, just as I have been doing for the last however many years I will spend the opening weeks of my course deprogramming my students from the world of standardized writing assessment and try to introduce them to the pleasures of writing as part of an ongoing academic conversation, a conversation in which they have a stake, in which their voices are welcome.

The transition is often difficult. It is not the fault of their teachers, the vast majority of which would love to do away with the accountability regime to which they’re forced to knuckle under. CCSS is not a remedy for the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. It is NCLB on steroids. The standards are inextricably tied to the assessment and accountability measures, which are primarily enriching the companies (like the brutally incompetent Pearson) who provide the tests and the prep materials and the auditing that happens when we suspect that someone is cheating on the tests.

Our twenty years of accountability-based reform has mostly served to demoralize teachers and students. There is no scenario under which CCSS is likely to be an improvement.

I would love to be surprised by the students who show up in my class following the adoption of CCSS, but for now, I’ll be prepared to undo the damage I’ve been seeing for a long time.


[1] Pearson’s obsession with test security is legendary. As educator Peter Greene argues, if the tests were really any good or meaningful, they wouldn’t need to be so secure.





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