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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 30 2013

Common Core: Perpetuating the Opportunity Gap

Only a little over a week ago, I was sitting at Markham Middle School at 8 o clock in the morning learning about the Common Core Standards and Assessment Data. As I sat with my friend and colleague Dominic, taking the seventh grade practice math assessment for the Common Core State Requirements, I realized that this test was extremely different from any standardized test I had previously taken throughout my 23 years of living. The test was more interactive, comprehension-based, and focused on critical thinking and a holistic understanding of material. As Dom and I delved further and further into the test, I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to be so averse to the test itself. Something just seemed wrong as I tried to relate the test in front of me to the seventh graders waiting for me to come teach them in Room 53. I thought maybe it was just the difference in test-type compared with the typical multiple-choice, memorization-based approach I was used to, but that didn’t seem to fit. As I carried on, I thought maybe it was the fact that I knew my students would struggle with this criteria, as it seemed more advanced and complex than the objectives I was currently teaching (and not without difficulty) to my seventh graders. However, as I reflected on that idea, I realized that wasn’t it either. Throughout the summer I had maintained very high expectations for my kids, often times well past what the given objectives were, and they met those expectations every time. Although the new standards may mean a slightly different technique to informal assessment, I had really been probing my kids for this deeper level of understanding all summer long, and reinforcing that through their guided and independent practice. So what on Earth was making me feel so creepy about this test? Why was I so opposed to it?
At some point Dom and I hit a question that had me confused for more than a few seconds. I understood the question and I could easily verbalize the answer, but I just couldn’t figure out where to plug that answer in on my computer screen. Eventually I figured out that I had to click and drag some images to a box and then click to expand those images to visually represent the answer. My struggle to answer the question had nothing to do with my ability to do the math equation; it had nothing to do with comprehending the math concept; it didn’t even have anything to do with being able to represent the answer in this visual way. My difficulty emerged from my unfamiliarity with the interface of the test. Then it hit me. This is why I was so averse to the test. I had wasted time on every single question on the entire assessment because I had to figure out how to interact with the assessment program. For this to prove to be difficult for me, even if only for a few seconds, alerted me to a huge problem that may come to be in our near future when we utilize Common Core in our schools.
I am a 23 year old college graduate who has used a computer every single day of my life for at least fifteen years. I consider myself to be very tech savvy and can typically figure out how to use any form of technology fairly quickly and without instruction. I contribute this to growing up immersed in technology, going to schools that are well off, taking computer classes, and overall just loving computers and technology. If this test was confusing for me, how is it going to be for our kids? What about the kids that don’t have computers at home? The ones that don’t have transportation to the library to practice there? The ones who aren’t inherently tech savvy? The ones that already struggle with not having enough time on tests and now have to figure out an extra challenge on each question? We can pretend like it will be fair because each school will legally have to have computers for each student to practice on and become familiar with the testing, but who are we kidding? It’s a theoretical requirement to access that doesn’t translate to reality. Shouldn’t my students also have had access to a pre-algebra textbook this summer the way their equal age counterparts at A.C. Stelle in Calabasas did? Yes, of course, but they didn’t. The fact of the matter is, not every school has the funding available to get their computer and technology networks up to date enough to meet the standards for this Common Core Online Assessment. When met with this budget crisis, one of two things will happen, either enough computers will not be provided, or funding will be cut from another area within the school, and students will suffer in that way.
Even if our schools do find a way to become compliant with the law, our poorer districts will still be at a disadvantage. It has been suggested that a good computer to student ratio would be 7:1. If my kids at Markham get one computer for every seven students (probably an old model with shoddy and slow internet connection) and the kids at A.C. Stelle get one computer for every student (probably a brand new laptop that they can bring to and from school with stellar wifi), it still isn’t an equal system. The fact remains that the richest schools will have the most practice time, the most familiarity, and the fastest internet connections, while our underprivileged areas suffer. The scores reported for our kids won’t necessarily match their content knowledge only due to the fact that they didn’t have the materials necessary for success. They will suffer for being poor. They will suffer based on being born into a certain zip code. This is why I felt so uncomfortable taking this test in that MPR. This is why I felt such a disconnect between me taking this test and my classroom (which has exactly 0 computers in it). Doesn’t this new mode of assessment just perpetuate the opportunity gap for our kids in a new way? To me, it seems that’s exactly what it does.

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5 Responses

  1. Cassie Love

    John- A great suggestion on the field trips to be sure! I can only hope that all teachers in this conundrum will take the time and effort (as well as find available resources) for this type of exposure.
    yoteach- By no means do I mean to claim that Common Core is not a net positive. I like the necessity for higher level thinking as well as the content; my issues are more geared toward the assessment alone at the moment. I hope you’re right about the correlation, because I know I’m right statistically about lack of technology in these poor urban areas. As of last year only five school systems met the technological requirements for this testing. In any case, putting faith in the testing consortium to figure out their flaws is beyond what I can do at this point; they have yet to rectify the cultural bias in the testing although that has been clearly evident for years. It seems they just don’t care about our kids. But yes, I hope widespread response will be to increase computer access to our kids, there is no doubt that technological fluency is becoming ever more imperative for success in today’s society. (:

  2. yoteach

    All that being said, I hope the response to your concern is to increase computer access to students in such schools.

  3. yoteach

    I personally found that a lot of my fourth grade students in Detroit had a lot of exposure to electronics at least (iphones, androids, etc.) though perhaps not laptops, and actually found technology much more intuitive than I did. Perhaps my experience was not generalizable.

    I also think it’s quite likely (or at least as likely) that your experiences evidence that there is no correlation between computer exposure and interface fluency, not necessarily that it would be x times more difficult for unexposed students.

    If I’m wrong and poor students are both less exposed to technology and at a disadvantage on the test, I’d imagine it wouldn’t be hard for the testing consortium to discover this problem (and I would imagine that they are having different types students testing out this interface). IF they got so much right re: content of questions, hopefully they are capable of ensuring the layout is smart too.

    Finally, in terms of the opportunity gap, I would argue that even if poor students are disadvantaged because of the layout of the test (though this has always been the case, especially with culturally biased questions, etc.), common core is still an easy net positive. For one thing, questions should force even the slimiest test-prep schools to orient around higher level thinking. Moreover, as opposed to the culturally biased SATs, there aren’t any stakes attached to these tests for students yet (depending on NCLB reauthorization). Plus all those economies of scale, loss of perverse incentive to lower standards, etc.

  4. Meghank

    You’re right. And advocacy hasn’t worked to get these tests changed to be more reasonable – the test makers are just too powerful.

    Our only choice is to have a massive boycott of state testing.

  5. John Ruiz

    Cassie, I’ll only make a few initial points for now. The problem is a lack of resources and funding. This is where we must be advocates for those students. Either we bring the laptops to them or bring them to the laptops. One suggestion would be to arrange field trips to libraries, where students could gain access to sufficient computer resources. I remember the TFA/LMU program offering resources along those lines that may be worth investigating. Such extra effort is time consuming and not always feasible, but the students are worth the effort. I do not know how effective such efforts would prove to be, but I know that our students minds do not have to be confined to the walls of the rooms in which we taught them. Our vision and love for them should prompt us to explore ways to help them with the inevitabilities that are coming down the pipeline.

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Love Letters From Miss Love <3

Los Angeles
Middle School
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July 2013