Common Core opponents wave signs and cheer at a rally opposing Mississippi's continued use of the Common Core academic standards on the steps of the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Jan. 6, 2015.
Photo by Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Opinion: Wading through the debate over Common Core and ‘opt-out’

Updated

The education policy world is being consumed by a noisy politically fueled battle over the Common Core State standards and testing.

Presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz have repeatedly mischaracterized the Common Core and claimed that they will “get rid of it” if elected. Along with Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, I co-chaired the bipartisan state-led effort through which teachers and education experts — not federal bureaucrats — created the grade-by-grade expectations for math and English. Decisions about the fate of the standards should stay right where they are — at the state level, where the vast majority of states are recognizing the value of setting higher expectations for their students to prepare them for success in a high-skill economy.

While the facts clearly rebut Trump’s and Cruz’s claims about Common Core removing local control from education, addressing concerns about testing is more complicated.

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Unfortunately, this debate’s volume and tone — including the ill-conceived opt-out movement — has obscured the fact that we should be able to find common ground in a couple of key areas. First, it’s widely acknowledged that there is such a thing as too much testing, and that our kids need better, fewer and fairer tests. Secondly, while parents, educators, and policymakers have concerns about testing, they show less support than many realize for the opt-out push related to annual state assessments.

It’s time for a more productive conversation about addressing serious issues around testing. That’s why I urge everyone with a stake in a strong education system to support the “Testing Bill of Rights.” It rests on two simple, reasonable principles. One is that an excellent education requires having high-quality tools to measure student learning and help teachers improve instruction; and the other is that standardized tests should be in service of improving classroom instruction, not vice versa.

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Building on these principles, the Testing Bill of Rights outlines a series of common sense rights for students, parents and teachers as relating to standardized testing. For example, students are entitled to an education free of excessive test prep. Teachers deserve professional development, high-quality curricula, and the time and support needed to teach and prepare their students. And parents have a right to know if their children are making progress each year and on track to graduate from high school ready for college, career and citizenship. 

Note that none of these principles or anything else in the Testing Bill of Rights amounts to a blanket defense of — or a blatant attack on — every assessment. Instead, it provides a framework that can help parents, teachers and students distinguish between fair, relevant tests that ensure students get the resources and support they need, and those tests that have simply become a matter of routine, while doing little or nothing to advance learning.

That distinction is especially important as a majority of schools across the country administer assessments aligned to the Common Core. This rigorous set of expectations for what students should know and be able to do has already begun to raise the bar for millions of students. Measuring students’ improvement — and figuring out where students need help as they adjust to the new standards — is only possible with the aid of high-quality assessments tied to the Common Core. But all tests are not created equal.

In Delaware, we have launched a statewide assessment inventory to work with educators and the community to identify unnecessary and ineffective tests. We know we won’t agree on every proposal, but this effort has already resulted in one district reducing testing time by 13 hours. 

So instead of creating false divisions by arguing for simplistic, all-or-nothing positions on testing, let’s make a good-faith effort to meet in the middle for open, honest discussion about how to make annual assessments one part of providing a better education for all of our students.

Discussions about education are rarely productive when they are fueled by politics rather than how we best support our students — regardless of whether these debates happen in the context of a presidential campaign or a local city council meeting. I encourage everyone who is more interested in the hard work of improving our schools than scoring political points to get the facts about critical education issues. CoreStandards.org provides information about Common Core and what the standards represent; TestBetter.org offers a path for parents, teachers and policymakers to work together to create better, fairer and fewer tests.

If we put the needs of our students at the center of education policy, we can prevent misinformed campaigns against the Common Core and its aligned assessments from undermining the great work happening in classrooms across our country. 

Jack Markell has served as the governor of Delaware since 2009. He was reelected in 2012.

Common Core and Education Policy

Opinion: Wading through the debate over Common Core and 'opt-out'

Updated