The real problem with Common Core

Published: Friday, Nov. 29, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

NEW YORK – In the past two weeks, there has been an explosion of commentary about the tiny – yet extremely loud – standardized test opt-out movement, in which parents prevent their kids from taking a new generation of tougher exams.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan characterized the opt-outers as “white suburban moms” afraid to learn the truth – that more than half of their little Einsteins are, according to new internationally benchmarked standards called the Common Core, intellectually mediocre. (He has since apologized for his loaded phrasing.) Frank Bruni asked, “Are American kids too coddled” by parents who protect them from measurement and competition? The conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, while not exactly supporting the new standards, beat back the growing Common Core critiques from the right, like Glenn Beck’s ridiculous claim that the government will scan children’s irises.

Hothouse parents are an easy and familiar media target. And though it’s hard to generalize about the demographics of the families involved in opting out, much of the anti-test activism has been concentrated in suburbs and at more privileged urban schools, such as Garfield High in Seattle. These educated parents and kids have some legitimate concerns about the new generation of tests. In subjects such as art, music, gym and even kindergarten, many of these exams are experimental, and can be developmentally questionable. But, in general, a more rigorous curriculum is a good thing for American students. There is a wealth of evidence that our children do too little writing, have no conceptual understanding of math and read too many books with scant literary merit. One way to make sure local schools are correcting these problems is to require them to administer standardized tests.

We should all give a little more thought to how the new testing push is affecting people like 20-year-old Jessica, who is working three jobs while studying for the GED, because she failed to meet the mark of New York’s new, tougher graduation standards, which require scores of at least 65 on tests in history, English, math and science. Previously, New York kids could earn a so-called “local” diploma if they scored at least 55 on those exams, and had passed their high school courses. Now that option is gone, thanks to the national school reform push that promotes a single “college and career-ready” standard for all teens, regardless of whether they want to attend nursing school or Harvard.

• Dana Goldstein is a New York-based journalist, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and a fellow at the Nation Institute. Follow her on Twitter.