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Thompson: Looking Back At Russo's Critique of Common Core Coverage

Its been two weeks since Alexander Russo's Common Problems with Common Core Reporting, in the Columbia Journalism Review, criticized the education reporting of some of journalism's greatest institutions. Russo argues that Common Core coverage is "overheated," it dwells on problems that have not recurred this year, and it is not precise enough on the actual size of the Opt Out movement (as it exists at this point.) Neither does he like the precise ways that education reporters have described the resistance to Common Core testing within the context of school reform, and its bitter battles between proponents and opponents of test-driven accountability  
Russo is criticizing the first draft of the history of Common Core testing and the backlash against it. But, history is a "seamless web." The latest round of testing for college readiness can't be understood without remembering the years of mindless NCLB-type bubble-in accountability that narrowed the curriculum, encouraged the "juking of stats" and outright cheating, and inspired a massive revolt against top-down corporate reform. 
Assessments tied to Common Core standards can't be understood outside the context of high stakes testing. Neither can it be understood without recalling the ways that test scores have been the ammunition used by reformers like Newark's Cami Anderson to replace neighborhood schools with charters. No journalist or historian could describe the New Jersey Opt Out movement, for instance, while ignoring the massive political revolt against Anderson, presidential candidate Gov. Chris Christie, and market-driven edu-philanthropists. 
Above all, this year's fight over Common Core testing has expanded the use of test scores to punish teachers to a Battle Royal where reformers attack and insult parents, and threaten to punish students who opt out. Politically speaking, there is a huge difference between scorched the earth edu-politics against teachers and unions versus high-profile punitive actions against children. 
A couple of weeks ago, Anthony Cody nailed the essence of Russo's argument, as it was expressed during opening of the Spring testing season. The first quarter of the competition had just begun, and Russo was already "working the refs."  
So, how has the contest unfolded since then?

On the eve of Russo's article, New Jersey journalist/blogger Bon Braun unleashed a hailstorm of anti-testing and anti-corporate anger when he revealed that Pearson testing company was monitoring the social media activity of students taking the Common Core tests. New Jersey officials dug themselves into a deeper hole by seeking the punishment of students and criticizing parents who defended their children's privacy.    

Politico further expanded the coverage with Stephanie Simon writing "It’s standardized-testing season across the U.S. — and they’re on the lookout for student tweets about the tests." She described the "firestorm" prompted by the disclosure which "sparked anger from parents and teachers in part because the company has become a symbol of the controversial changes sweeping through public schools, such as the emphasis on high-stakes testing and the shift to the Common Core academic standards." Simon further reported that:

Irate parents and teachers have peppered social media with attacks on Pearson, many of them using the hashtag #Pearsoniswatching. The American Federation of Teachers has joined in, circulating a petition that features a creepy photo of a man in trench coat, fedora and sunglasses staring out a car window. The first line of the petition: “Big Brother really is watching.”

This latest controversy now rivals the previous gaffs by Pearson, such as the infamous "pineapple" question. Even the reform-minded Congressman Jared Polis has filed legislation to stop the snooping. 

While the abuse of students appropriately garners the bigger headlines, the increasingly coercive actions taken against educators remains in the news. For instance, because of Common Core testing in New Mexico, teachers in that state  "must sign a contract promising never to disparage the tests in school or in public."
Every time Common Core supporters publish falsehoods and try to bully students and teachers into compliance, they feed the movement's energy.  As more than 100 New York school system superintendents signed a letter protesting Governor Andrew Cuomo's education agenda, Carol Burris and Bianca Tanis explain in the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, how "others are attempting to stop Opt Out, using a combination of shaming, threats and misinformation."
Then, dozens of New York organizations endorsed Opting Out and the president of the New York State Teachers Union called for a mass Opt Out.
Lower profile, but perhaps equally important, stories that challenge the integrity of Common Core tests, also continue to be published. In New York, when the mystery of last year's missing questions was solved, it became clear that claims of improved test scores were debunked. Similarly, it is now revealed that Louisiana PARCC tests are not sealed with the traditional tab, making it easier to cheat on the state's Common Core tests.
And, let's not forget the wonkier but hugely important issue of the inevitable train wreck between Common Core testing and value-added evaluations. As Gene Glass reminds us, even a small reduction in percentage of students  who take these tests will undermine the integrity, such as it is, of test scores as an accountability metric for individuals. As Glass concludes:
If 10% of the parents at the school say "No" to the standardized test, how do the statisticians adjust or correct for those missing data? Which 10% opted out? The highest scorers? The lowest? A scattering of high and low scorers? And would any statistical sleight of hand to correct for "missing data" stand up in court against a teacher who was fired or a school that was taken over by the state for a "turn around"?
Glass doesn't think so, and neither do I. It would be hard enough to claim that the switch to Common Core doesn't undercut the validity and the reliability of the value-added portion of teacher evaluations. As the Opt Out grows, it will become more difficult to claim that the apples to pineapples comparison of teachers' value-added scores is not irrational, and thus defensible in court.-JT (@drjohnthompson)   

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