By Anthony Cody

When critics such as myself point out the very bad effects the Common Core tests are having, as they label more than two thirds of our children unready for college and career, we are accused of “conflating tests with standards.” UFT president Michael Mulgrew was making this argument on the AFT convention floor, when he threatened to punch in the face anyone who might try to take “his standards” away from him. He said, “Let’s be clear the history of standards. Standards are our tools. Those are the tools of teachers. And we understand that No Child Left Behind, when they started comparing one state to another, the teachers said it was unfair, and we needed a common set of standards which we should all be working off of.” According to Mulgrew, teachers ought to own standards and tests, as they are part of our professional tools. And our task is to implement them well so as to fulfill their promise.

Overlooking his bellicosity, let’s take a deeper look at the history of standardized tests, because I am not so sure we ought to take ownership of them at all, given their impact on the lives of our students.

One of my heroes was the late Stephen Jay Gould, who devoted his life to exploring and explaining the intricacies of evolution. In his book, The Mismeasure of Man, he reveals the roots of standardized testing in the work of Lewis Terman, who brought to us the first widely applied tests, building on the work of Binet, who had pioneered intelligence tests for inductees into the Army during World War 1.

Gould explains how Terman saw these tests being used.

IQ of 75 or below should be the realm of unskilled labor, 75 to 85 “preeminently the range for semi-skilled labor.” More specific judgments could also be made. “Anything above 85 in the case of a barber probably represents so much dead waste” (1919, p. 288). IQ 75 is an “unsafe risk in a motorman or conductor, and it conduces to discontent.” (Terman, 1919). Proper vocational training and placement is essential for those of the “70 to 85 class.” Without it, they tend to leave school “and drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents” (1919, p. 285).

This “science” of measurement was also connected to a movement called “eugenics.” It was seen as undesirable for the less intelligent to reproduce, since their offspring would be inferior, and thus a burden to society. And there were heavy racial implications as well. Terman wrote:

The writer predicts that when this is done there will be discovered enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture. Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view because of their unusually prolific breeding.

And there was a rather circular argument used to suggest that this measurement is in line with societal outcomes. Terman argued:

After all, does not common observation teach us that, in the main, native qualities of intellect and character, rather than chance, determine the social class to which a family belongs? From what is already known about heredity, should we not naturally expect to find the children of well-to-do, cultured, and successful parents better endowed than the children who have been raised in sums and poverty? An affirmative answer to the above question is suggested by nearly all the available scientific evidence. (1917, p. 99).

Studies have found that IQ tests are not a reliable or valid way to measure cognitive ability. Terman’s work laid the foundation for the modern industry of standardized testing, even though testing proponents are not likely to claim this lineage.

The modern movement for higher standards has its roots in the Nation at Risk report of 1983, which warned of the “rising tide of mediocrity” that threatened to envelope out educational system. The cure for this was “higher standards,” and tests to ensure those standards were being met. In 2001, No Child Left Behind put in place sanctions for schools that failed to make growth on standardized tests. And as Michael Mulgrew pointed out, among the problems with NCLB was the fact that different states used different standards and tests to measure student learning.

So Common Core was brought forward, to ensure a single set of standards and tests could be used, so as to be “fair.”

But the Common Core arrived with a whole additional agenda. These standards were designed to be more “rigorous.” They were designed to determine who is “college and career ready.” And as we see the way the test scores have dropped, we are finding an eerie connection to the roots of the testing project, because just as Terman believed that tests could tell us if someone was destined to be a barber or a brain surgeon, we are imbuing these tests with an awesome power.

Those who have promoted the tests as some sort of guarantor of opportunity seem to only focus on the students who are successful. But with Common Core tests, for every student who is labeled ready for college and career, two students fail to earn this stamp of approval. Look closely, and in many facets of modern education reform, there are junctures where students have been ranked and sorted into those worthy of opportunity, and those whom we must discard. Philosophically, this fits in with the “strict father” mentality described by George Lakoff. So we have a redesign of our school system so that some charter schools are set up to “serve the strivers,” and allowed to jettison the rest to be absorbed by the public system.

The Common Core is a part of this ranking and sorting system. As Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis pointed out when announcing their local’s resolution against the Common Core,

We also know that high-stakes standardized testing is designed to rank and sort our children and it contributes significantly to racial discrimination and the achievement gap among students in America’s schools.

We have seen this coming true as Common Core tests are given around the country. Test scores fall, and the achievement gap widens.

We are being told that somehow it is a good thing for poor students to get low test scores, because this will “shed light” on how far behind they are and this will somehow spur action to improve their schools. We have had a dozen years of this practice under NCLB, and we still see the underfunding of schools attended by poor students, Latinos and African Americans. The favored solution of closing schools and shifting students into semi-private charters is doing more harm than good to these communities. And there is another effect – those tests are being used to judge these students, and even determine if they receive a high school diploma or not.

There has been a loss of trust between those designing tests and standards, and those of us – educators and students, who are subject to their effects. We are told that our schools must prepare ALL students for college and career, yet the Common Core aligned tests used to make this designation are declaring the majority of our students not ready.

The chief financial backer of the Common Core, Bill Gates, in a recent interview, said this:

Well, technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses… It’s progressing. And that’s going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set. And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.

And the jobs promised to those now attending college, even in supposedly high demand STEM fields, seem to be evaporating.

It may well be that corporate employers need fewer, not more, college graduates. And fewer workers of any sort, as technological advances eliminate jobs. In this context of shrinking opportunity, is it a coincidence that corporate education “reform” results in a shrinking number of students considered “ready” for such opportunities?

Michael Mulgrew is correct that we should be clear about the history of standards. But their history does not suggest that they are the tools of teachers. Nor does it seem likely that they will deliver fairness or equity when enforced by standardized tests, as has been promised.

In a debate with Terman, Walter Lippman offered this cogent observation:

If it were true, the emotional and worldly satisfactions in store for the intelligence tester would be very great. If he were really measuring intelligence, and if intelligence were a fixed hereditary quantity, it would be for him to say not only where to place each child in school, but also which child should go to high school, which to college, which into the professions, which into the manual trades and common labor. If the tester would make good his claim, he would soon occupy a position of power which no intellectual has held since the collapse of theocracy. The vista is enchanting, and even a little of the vista is intoxicating enough.

This vista has proved irresistible to the modern-day testers. They eschew the use of the term “IQ” and instead insist they are measuring what students have learned. But there is no humility in the “rigor” with which they are prepared to consign a large number of students to the discard pile as “unready” for college and career. Such confidence is unwarranted. The Common Core is far more likely to expand inequities than remedy them. Students who fail to meet the “rigorous” standards will be the ones left behind, and those most affected by poverty and segregation will be hardest hit. Michael Mulgrew is welcome to clutch these standards forever. But teachers would be better off tossing them in the dustbin with previous efforts to rank and sort their students.

What do you think? Should teachers attempt to reclaim or redeem the Common Core standards? Or should we toss them in the dustbin? 


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. 2old2tch    

    As a special educator, my focus was never on ranking my students but in figuring out how they best learned and helping them do it. Faux IQ scores were of no use to me; they told me next to nothing about what made a student tick. To determine the future of students based on these tests is likely to tell us more about their SES than their potential for embracing life long learning.

    1. jeanhaverhill    

      to special educator: thanks for the comment…. I am thinking of a student who had a reported 85 IQ, took one year at a community college where he did not do well, then entered the Air Force and was highly responsible, performed well, and learned everything they had to offer him. He is now out and works in a family business. I can repeat these examples ad infinitum but they want us to deny our experience with students and do some kind of “egg crate” thing or “pigeon hole” stuffing kids into boxes, quintiles and quartiles. It just irritates me….

  2. jeanhaverhill    

    Human diversity is amazing and cannot always be captured in numerical presentations. Speaking of a special education student, an MRI might not show up something that we observed in classrooms but when you put 100 MRIs together you see patterns. This leads me to the recommendation of the book by a U. Mass Professor entitled :The Black Swan (it has nothing to do with racial overtones but describes what occurs in nature ) and the author of the book recommends we throw out the bell curve in understanding diversity. Recently, the federal government has proposed they want to disabuse the local schools (in particular the IEP teams) of their knowledge of variance among human beings and that means to me that they don’t understand the work we do…… or the abilities of our students. On a separate point, the standard setting process in Massachusetts began at the local level with faculty discussion of the local curriculum and alignment of the local curriculum (usually meant text) with the test in use: e.g., Stanford, California Test, Iowa Test, Nova Test etc…. … The curriculum objectives were aligned with the test to determine the local standard which was then submitted to the state offices. This process has now been diverted so that a uniform listing of objectives comes top down from the feds through the state bureaucracy (the objectives supplied by the feds don’t match with our curriculum frameworks ) then the feds impose a PEARSON/PARCC test that aligns with nothing because it is experimental “R&D LAB” stuff….. I am furious that this process has distorted the good things we had going in the state of Massachusetts in an effort to prepare “widgets” in factory mode whereas I am more content with the variance and diversity that permits students to strive for something unique that might send them to the top of the charts…. on skills and complexities of thinking that we haven’t acknowledged yet.
    I’ve raised several issues that represent flaws in the current federal approach ….. for another illustration people should read Neil Wilson’s articles when he talks about “psychometric fudge” instead of Richwine’s articles that proclaim a rigid view of what intelligence is and how it is measured.

  3. jeanhaverhill    

    Maybe the “gurus” telling teachers how to improve their effectiveness should go back to their offices or cubicles and advice he brokers on “wheat futures”….. can you tell that I am exceedingly angry?

  4. Betsy Marshall    

    As a special education teacher, part of my job is to administer standardized individual academic evaluations to make determinations about a child’s eligibility for receiving special education services. Special education services also require the administration of a standard IQ test, usually administrated by a licensed psychologist. Of course the speech pathologist, the occupational therapist and the physical therapist also have a list of standardized tests that might be administered as well. The tests are somewhat useful when used as a prescriptive tool for designing an individualized program for a student.

    In my experience, those children who score within the low average range, or below, on an IQ test, will be the children who are not meeting grade level standards (even before CCSS came along). Unfortunately using prescriptive tools to design an appropriate education for every child is not the goal of the standardized testing being pushed by education reformers. Schools are obviously not being given the resources necessary to insure that every child receive an education that helps them to reach their own highest potential. The sorting and ranking of children is not used to make decisions about where additional resources need to be allocated in order to meet the needs of those children not making the grade. More and more children are being left by-the-way-side by design.

    American tax payers, particularly those in the business community, do not want to foot the bill for educating children that can not keep up. If the academic bar is raised, and more children can be discarded, education becomes more cost effective.

    I have also read the ‘The Mismeasure of Man’. Arguments regarding the heritability of an innate intelligence verses intellectual capability based on qualitative life circumstances is an interesting theoretical conversation. It is important to remember, that when someone starts a conversation with the words “research shows”, that the research being used as evidence does not always have an agreed upon interpretation.

  5. Arthur Camins    

    I agree that historically testing and the structure of education in the US has been strongly influenced by the notion of fixed intelligence and a desire to sort children for particular roles in an inequitable society. I agree that the CCSS have been intentionally linked to testing to blame and shame. I agree that there is no evidence to support the idea that high-stakes testing and prescriptive standards can be a lever for improvement. Nonetheless, I think the discussion about the role of standards is more complex and demands a nuanced conversation. I discussed this in 2013 at greater length in an article called, The Past Gets in Our Eyes:

  6. HA Hurley    

    Diagnostic teams in all school systems have to complete extensive academic, intellectual and social/emotional testing with children evaluated for eligibility for SpEd SWD services. All these team members are trained, credentials, licensed, along with parents to review all data carefully. None of those decisions should be made lightly, by untrained professionals and must meet criteria according to many categories. Many readers know all this.
    I am writing about this because there are many stories of misidentified, over identified and wrongly identified cases. The original ‘Mills Case’ in 1970 was a class action case in DC where many students , black students, were stuck into classes for the Mentally Retarded. This case led to PL 94-142 & ultimately IDEA. In GA, the ‘Ollie Marshall Case’ led to mandated 2 IQ measures supporting MR, and RTI due to over identification of black kids labeled MR.

    Many kids in poverty may present a profile of children with lower IQs, and specialists must do their job to NOT JUST CRUNCH NUMBERS! They must know all about children, learning, abilities & disabilities.
    NCLB & RTT, CCSS are literally KILLING our Kids!
    Closing many doors for their future.

  7. Lulu Cafe    

    When test time rolled around, my inner-city students mostly bubbled whatever, because the tests made them feel stupid, and if they didn’t even try then they hadn’t really failed. These students had more than enough intelligence to talk or write about texts or ideas that were of interest, often raising issues that Bill Gates and his homies would be hard pressed to understand. I’ve come to accept the CA high school exit exam, but the yearly state tests should be scrapped. Period.

  8. Old Teacher    

    As a teacher that has an M.A. in Psychology, am a combat vet, and was a profiler for the Army, the insidious truth about testing has not changed much since Terman. All tests are made with built in bias and have certain assumptions that the designers are willing to live with. The intent of a test is to discriminate among individuals and rank them on a perceived trait. I emphasize perceived, all social constructs in psychology are operationally defined, almost a tautology, implied by measure because the tester says so. The trappings of the hard sciences are applied to social engineering in wishful thinking. It is all assumption!

  9. H.A. Hurley    

    As in NY, 70% were deemed unfit for the grade level they are currently in.
    Damaged Goods?
    This Frankenstein experiment with humans must be stopped. But when?
    Child Labor Laws should be broadened and applied when Kindergarten children are made to sit for hours, click on computers, and their data is being considered accurate, and life predicting conclusions are drawn?
    This RTTT Era will go down in history as the biggest misuse of data and abuse of the educational system to line the pockets of Billionaire$ around the world.
    Why do we continue to look away?
    Will we all be marched through the damaged fallout and made to look at the increased dropouts, increased mental health adults, increased crime, scorched earth where once thriving schools stood? Will there be a Public School Nürenberg Trial where the Deformer$ must answer?
    Don’t think so.
    This is an almost perfect and invisible crime of the psyche & heart.

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