The backlash against standardized testing is rippling through some Roman Catholic schools as they balance the college-driven Common Core learning standards with spiritual goals.
The Diocese of Albany announced recently that it will reduce the frequency of the Common Core-aligned tests while sticking with the standards, which spell out skills students should master at each grade level from kindergarten through high school.
"Although the standards of the Common Core itself are good, the collateral pieces have caused great strife for families and teachers," Superintendent Michael Pizzingrillo said.
The number of dioceses that have opted out of using either the standards, tests or both hasn't been officially tracked while states have phased them in over the past five years. Surveys showed about half of the 195 U.S. dioceses — which like other private schools are not obligated to use the standards— initially adopting them, the National Catholic Educational Association said.
"Right now, Catholic schools are still trying to figure out how they respond to the Common Core and how deeply they embrace it," said Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 programming at the Cardinal Newman Society. The focus, he said, has to remain on the development of students' "mind, body and spirit."
"We don't open Catholic schools to get kids into college," Guernsey said. "We open Catholic schools to get them into heaven."
About 1.9 million students around the U.S. are enrolled in 6,568 Catholic schools, most of them elementary schools, according to the National Catholic Education Association. They haven't been immune to the outcry over high-stakes testing roiling public schools.
"Many parents are listening to the news. They see the political charge," said Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director for education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "What this situation has done is created an opportunity for Catholic schools to review our mission: What is our mission and how does the curriculum support that mission?"
The conference urges education leaders to review the standards but notes that rejecting them could put students at a disadvantage later in high school. Fleming said individual dioceses have chosen a variety of approaches to the Common Core, either adopting or adapting them in part or as a whole, or, in places including Denver and Lansing, Michigan, staying away from them altogether.
The Albany diocese's decision to change its testing schedule coincides with a call by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for "a total reboot" of the Common Core after his state became the epicenter of anti-testing sentiment. An unprecedented 20 percent of public school students statewide opted out of the mandatory math and English assessments this past spring. A task force is expected to make recommendations this month.
Three of the 46 states that originally adopted the Common Core standards have dropped them. More dramatic has been the decline in membership in the two consortia tasked with creating the assessments, Smarter Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The number of participating states has fallen from 46 to 22 as states find alternative ways to meet testing requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Pizzingrillo said it's hoped the Albany diocese's move away from state tests in its 23 schools will help parents distinguish between the standards, whose focus on critical thinking is seen as useful, and the tests, which are at the center of so much turmoil. Instead of testing all students in grades three through eight, Albany Catholic schools will, beginning this year, test only those in grades three, five and seven and use a different test to measure student achievement.
An initiative by the National Catholic Education Association makes available detailed lesson plans that integrate spiritual components into a standards-based curriculum. A fifth-grade English lesson on the Civil War, for example, incorporates the idea of righteousness, while a fourth-grade geometry lesson uses crosses to demonstrate parallel, perpendicular and intersecting lines.
English teacher Meghan Bornhorst said the standards will continue to guide her lessons, even though not all of her students will be directly tested on them.
"A lot of students go to public (high) school," she said. "I don't want them to go and say, 'We were supposed to learn this?'"
Thompson reported from Buffalo, N.Y.