Is Common Core testing good for mental health? - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Is Common Core testing good for mental health?

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Editor's note: This story is part of a continuing series to examine the effects of Common Core curriculum in West Virginia. Previous stories have been archived at statejournal.com.

Even without a degree in child psychology, one could say with confidence that it takes several years before a child's brain is fully developed.

Several scientific studies have even suggested it is not until someone's mid-20s before the brain's developmental process is complete.

In the continuing debate about Common Core curriculum, the effect on a child's psyche in relation to the required testing is an issue not often talked about, but that those in the mental health field are beginning to address.  

Guidelines needed

According to Gary Thompson, director of Clinical Training and Community Advocacy Services of the Utah-based Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center, the testing aspect of Common Core deserves closer inspection, considering the final product of the adaptive, assessment test has yet to be tested. 

Although adaptive tests are used — the GRE for example, Thompson said, "In terms of children in K-12 this has never been done in the history of the United States of America on this level and on this scope."

So, how will the new K-12 adaptive test be tested? With children sitting in front of a computer screen answering questions in a format that has never been done in the history of the United States.

An experiment is defined as "a course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the eventual outcome."

Considering adaptive testing on such a wide scale, magnitude and scope has never before been done, some say Common Core testing, itself, is an experiment.

Informed consent needed

Thompson points out that informed consent is necessary for any experiment.

"One of the first rules you have when it comes to experimentation is informed consent," he said, which includes outlining "what type of experiment is going to happen and the potential consequences or damages that can result from the experimentations."

But, he continued, parents were not provided with information to give their consent about Common Core curriculum. According to Thompson, the fact that "nobody knows what is on these adaptive tests" is another reason why informed consent is necessary.

Thompson said experiment itself is fine.

"I'm a local clinical community scientist," he said. "I make my living off of the results of people's experimentations, but there needs to be rules."

Thompson compared current Common Core testing to the "wild, wild west," with the assessment consortia doing as it pleases without imposing any regulations on itself.

As outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, entered on June 8, 2010 between the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the State of West Virginia, the Mountain State has to "identify and implement a plan to address barriers in state law, statute, regulation or policy to implementing the proposed assessment system and to addressing any such barriers prior to full implementation of the summative assessment components of the system."

The MOU was signed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, former Chief State School Officer Steven Paine and former President of the State Board of Education Priscilla Haden.

Vulnerable groups

When it comes to vulnerable groups, the Smarter Balanced Test Administration and Student Assessment Group outlined accommodations. The Student Assessment Group created a document titled "Accessibility and Accountability Framework." 

Thompson said he spent "eight hours trying to figure out who was in this group" and "would hope they would have a licensed clinical psychologist and a large variety in the group to build valid accommodations."

The goal, as stated, is to "provide accommodations that all yield valid scores that count as participation in state-wide assessments when used in a valid manner."

"What does that ‘count as participation' mean?" Thompson asked. 

He answered his own question by saying, "If these vulnerable groups show up to the test and participate they would deem that as valid." 

When it comes to test validity and accommodation validity, Thompson said, "there is absolutely no data whatsoever to show that these tests are valid or that the accommodations they are proposing are valid. 

"There is no peer review research and absolutely no data."

Advice from a father

Speaking as a father, Thompson advised other parents to "not participate in Common Core testing" and to "opt out your children."

"We have to stop Common Core as it is currently instituted today. One size can't fit all," he said. "Parents are, and must always be, the resident experts of their children. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Corporation and their vendors are not bigger than my children." 

Mary Calamia, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, who works in Stony Brook, N.Y., also raised questions about the adverse effect of Common Core testing and the developmentally inappropriate curricula. 

Calamia, whose caseload also consists of teachers, said she first heard about "the change to the curricula to a one-size-fits-all" in the summer of 2012, when her "elementary teachers reported increased anxiety over learning two new curricula: math and ELA." 

In the fall of 2012, Calamia said she received numerous referrals to elementary students refusing to go to school, school children complaining of insomnia, depressed mood, loss of appetite, panic attacks and increased self-mutilation.

"My phone never stopped," she said. "I was alarmed to hear in some cases there were no textbooks for parents to look at and they had no idea what their kids were learning."

Those symptoms only increased, she said, when testing time came closer.

Although Calamia said she didn't know of any formal studies that link these symptoms to Common Core, that didn't stop her from forming an opinion of her own. 

"I really don't think we need to sacrifice an entire generation of children just to get the correlation," she said. "The Common Core and high stakes testing are creating a hostile environment for teachers and consequently a hostile learning environment for students."

Adding to teacher anxiety, Calamia said, is making teachers responsible for student performance. 

Variables beyond teacher control such as poverty, lack of parental discipline, drug or alcohol problems, children not getting adequate sleep due to social media and other distractions as well as many other variables, affect a child's academic performance.

"Variables affect student performance and we make teachers responsible for their performance," Calamia said. 

Critical thinking required

How does that connect with Common Core and the idea that it may be developmentally inappropriate?

"Young children cannot engage in the type of critical thinking Common Core calls for," Calamia said. "That would require a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain that is not fully functional until adulthood.

"The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for critical thinking, rational decision making and abstract thought, all things the Common Core requires prematurely."

Giving children pre-assessments, telling them to succeed, giving them a test on material they haven't learned and telling them it's OK to fail is a mixed message children cannot resolve, she said.

Another issue Calamia has is with the "informational texts."

"Common Core requires children to read informational text that are owned by a handful of corporations," she said. "They don't have a filter to distinguish good information from bad, so whatever you put in front of them, they take that as gospel. They're literal."

Developmentally inappropriate writing

How children are asked to write also is a point of concern, Calamia said, especially with the focus on persuasion and persuasive writing.

"This focus on persuasion and persuasive writing and arguing, basically, is developmentally inappropriate when a child's pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed," Calamia said.

Relating to the developmentally inappropriate persuasive writing is the emphasis on writing critically using emotionally charged language to persuade, Calamia said. 

"We ask them to write critically using emotionally charged language to persuade instead of to inform," she said. "They don't have that functional pre-frontal cortex so they tap into their limbic system, which is the part of the brain that involves basic human emotions, anger and fear being the foremost."

"So when we ask them to use emotionally charged language we are actually asking them to fuel their language with fear, anger and aggression," she said. "They cannot temper this judgment. They don't have the ability to do that."

That is where the anxiety and acting out comes from, she said.

Calamia said the limbic system is primal and fully charged by the flight or fight emotions.

When it comes to the actual test, Calamia said she feels it doesn't measure learning, but rather resilience and endurance. 

"Only a child who can sit still for 90 minutes, come back the next day, and do it again the next day can succeed," she said. 

Former Texas Commissioner on Education Robert Scott said instead of having the two consortia, which are written by grants but funded by the federal government, create assessments, why not use existing resources like NAEP?

Scott also wonders that with 46 states having a one-size-fits-all system, how will local and community traditions be recognized?

In regard to planning tests and activities during his time as Commissioner on Education, Scott said he "had to be respectful of what was going on in other communities" because he "didn't want to upset local traditions."

He asked how a nationalized test covering 46 states will be able to do the same.

Old fashioned sometimes better

When it comes to Common Core in education, Calamia said, "we need to rethink Common Core and the associated high-stakes testing and get back to the business of educating our children in a safe, productive and healthy manner," she said. 

To drive home her point, Calamia took a lesson from the past.

"Our country became a superpower on the backs of men and women who learned in one-room schoolhouses," she said. "This isn't rocket science. 

"It doesn't take a great deal of technology or government or corporate involvement to help our children succeed."

Scott echoes Calamia's sentiment by bringing to light words James Madison spoke in 1792.

"If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may establish teachers in every state, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America."

While Congress itself is not the overt interference, the federal government is, he said.

"The Founding Fathers of our union saw this coming and they intended deliberate dialogue before once branch of government acted one its own and they intended the checks and balances to prevent one branch from dominating. I see that happening here," Scott said.