by Sara Neufeld, The Hechinger Report
In the beginning, Pennsylvania was going to be like most other states, following a new set of national education standards and administering new national standardized tests.
But a lot has happened since 2010, when the state signed on to participate in what’s known as Common Core, an initiative designed to make the United States more globally competitive by ensuring students’ ability to meet basic benchmarks.
A Democratic administration turned Republican, and Gov. Tom Corbett took seriously conservatives concerned about the federal government infringing on states’ rights. In March 2012, Pennsylvania officials released their own document, known as the Pennsylvania Core Standards, which they call a hybrid between the national Common Core and the state’s own guidelines.
How reliable are tests in measuring what really matters for 21st-century learning? And should high-stakes tests really be used as a punitive evaluation of teacher quality? With all the controversy surrounding standardized tests and cheating, it’s time for teachers, parents, districts and policymakers to consider alternatives.
South Philadelphia senior Marcus Johnson stands at the front of his classroom eager to give his presentation on mammals. But there are no poster board cutouts here, no sketches across a blackboard, no pages borrowed from an animal encyclopedia. Johnson, with his back to a class that has iMacs and iPads, works the keys on his laptop computer with the focus of an engineer in a computer lab. After a few clicks, he turns to face his peers, and the website he designed – which gives vivid images and rich content about the animals he loves so much – fills the interactive projector at the front of the room.
Something in Brenda Wolbransky's classroom doesn't feel right.
The 32-year District veteran is pacing the rows of her honors English class at George Washington High, coaxing her students into a conversation about Lord of the Flies, the classic tale of British schoolboys who get trapped on an island and descend into anarchy.
Penny Nixon fondly remembers Ms. Newman, her 12th grade teacher at Martin Luther King High School nearly 30 years ago.
"We wrote about almost everything in Ms. Newman's class," said Nixon. "We wrote about issues that impacted our lives, just being a teenager – around peer pressure, around drugs and alcohol."
Si usted nunca ha escuchado sobre los Common Core standards (estándares básicos en común), es hora de tomar nota. Éstos podrían tener un efecto enorme en lo que los estudiantes aprenderán, y posiblemente también en los exámenes que toman para medir su progreso.
Zach Morales learned early that high school would go more smoothly if he kept certain things to himself.
But privately, the unassuming teen is proud of his passion for reading. So he hesitates for only a moment before opening the door to his small bedroom.
"I have a vast collection of books," says Morales, sweeping an arm towards shelves packed with horror novels, Harry Potter books, and biographies of professional wrestlers.
"Every book in this bookcase, I've actually read," he proclaims.
There were sighs of relief in Philadelphia schools this winter when District leaders announced they will no longer mandate the use of scripted curricula. This was the first clear reversal of a burgeoning trend to narrow what is taught and prioritize drill on the discrete skills measured by state exams.