Seven facts you should know about new Common Core tests

common core

The Common Core State Standards now being implemented in most states and the District of Columbia will soon be accompanied by new standardized tests being developed by two multi-state consortia — the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — with $360 million in federal funds. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said repeatedly that he expects these exams, due to be rolled out in 2014-15, to go beyond the familiar multiple-choice standardized tests students have been forced to take for more than a decade and to be an “absolute game-changer in public education.”

Is he right? Not so much. Here are seven myths and realities about the new tests, from FairTest, or The National Center for Fair & Open Testing,  a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized tests. You can find more here on FairTest’s website.

Myth: Common Core tests will be much better than current exams, with many items measuring higher-order skills.
Reality: The new tests will largely consist of the same old multiple-choice questions.
Proponents initially said the new assessments would measure — and help teachers promote — critical thinking. In fact, the exams will remain predominantly multiple choice. Heavy reliance on such items continues to promote rote teaching and learning. Assessments will generally include just one session of short performance tasks per subject. Some short-answer and “essay” questions will appear, just as on many current state tests. Common Core math items are often simple computation tasks buried in complex and sometimes confusing “word problems.” The prominent Gordon Commission of measurement and education experts concluded that Common Core tests are currently “far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.”

Myth: Adoption of Common Core exams will end No Child Left Behind testing overkill.
Reality: Under Common Core, there will be many more tests and the same misuses.
The No Child Left Behind law triggered a testing tsunami over the past dozen years, and the Common Core will flood classrooms with even more tests. Both consortia keep mandatory annual English/language arts (ELA) and math testing in grades 3-8, as with NCLB. However, the tests will be longer than current state exams. PARCC will test reading and math in three high school grades instead of one; SBAC moves reading and math tests from 10th grade to 11th. In PARCC states, high schoolers will also take a speaking and listening test. PARCC also offers “formative” tests for kindergarten through second grade. Both consortia produce and encourage additional interim testing two to three times a year. As with NCLB, Common Core tests will be used improperly to make high-stakes decisions, including decisions involving high school graduation, teacher evaluation and school accountability.

Myth: New multi-state assessments will save taxpayers money.
Reality: Test costs will increase for most states. Schools will spend even more for computer infrastructure upgrades.
Costs have been a big concern, especially for the five states that dropped out of a testing consortium as of August 2013. PARCC acknowledges that half its member states will spend more than they do for current tests. Georgia pulled out when PARCC announced costs of new, computer-delivered summative math and ELA tests alone totaling $2.5 million more than its existing state assessment budget. States lack resources to upgrade equipment and bandwidth and provide technical support, at a cost likely to exceed that of the tests themselves. One analysis indicates that Race to the Top would provide districts with less than 10 cents on the dollar to defray those expenses plus mandated teacher evaluations.

Myth: New assessment consortia will actually design the tests rather than well-known test manufacturers who have made mistakes in the past.
Reality: The same profit-driven companies,  including Pearson, Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill, are producing the tests. These firms have long histories of mistakes. The multinational Pearson, for example, has been responsible for poor-quality items, scoring errors, computer system crashes and missed deadlines. Still, Pearson shared $23 million in contracts to design the first 18,000 PARCC test items.

Myth: Common Core assessments are designed to meet the needs of all students.
Reality: Not yet. The new tests could put students with disabilities and English-language learners at risk.
Advocates for English-language learners have raised concerns about a lack of appropriate accommodations. A U.S. Education Department’s technical review assessed the consortia’s efforts in July 2013 and issued a stern warning, saying that attempts to accommodate students with disabilities and ELLs need more attention (Gewertz, 2013).

Myth: Common Core “proficiency” is an objective measure of college- and career-readiness.
Reality: Proficiency levels on Common Core tests are subjective, like all performance levels.
Recent disclosures demonstrate that New York state, which last spring gave students a Common Core-aligned test designed by Pearson even before the consortia-developed tests have come out, set passing scores arbitrarily. There is no evidence that these standards or tests are linked to the skills and knowledge students need for their wide range of college and career choices.

Myth: States have to implement the Common Core assessments.
Reality: No, they don’t. 
High-quality assessment improves teaching and learning and provides useful information about schools. Examples of better assessments include well-designed formative assessments, performance assessments that are part of the curriculum (New York Performance Standards Consortium), and portfolios or Learning Records of actual student work. Schools can be evaluated using multiple sources of evidence that includes limited, low-stakes testing, school quality reviews, and samples of ongoing student work.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | September 4, 2013