Common Core supporters say defections are no big deal

As lawmakers in Florida and Michigan debate whether to pull out from the new Common Core academic standards, states that have been writing the standards and related exams downplayed the defections as no big deal.

“We have a very strong and robust and large coalition of states that have made a definitive commitment in moving ahead,” said Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who chairs one of the two groups of states that are designing the new math and reading standards as well as related tests to be given to students in grades K-12. His group is known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

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Chester said 14 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to field test the new exams in the spring of 2014 and then implement them in the 2014-2015 year. The states committed to the tests include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Ohio, New Jersey and Louisiana, he said.

“And that doesn’t include states that are considering it,” Chester told reporters on a phone call Monday. “I think we’re in great shape, in terms of quantities.”

Chester and top education officials from Rhode Island, New Mexico and Tennessee repeated their support for the new standards and tests, saying they wanted to counter attention in recent days to decisions by officials in Georgia and Oklahoma against adopting the new, more costly tests. Indiana officials have also halted implementation of the Common Core standards, saying they will hold a series of public hearings on the matter beginning next month.

The new tests are expected to cost states $29.50 a student for both math and reading tests. For half the states in the PARCC consortium, that’s less than what they currently pay for standardized tests. But for the others, the cost is more.

And for some, like Georgia, it is significantly higher. The Common Core tests would add about $27 million to the state budget, officials said.

Georgia, which now spends $12 a student for tests in math and reading, said it will instead write its own Common Core tests, perhaps joining with other states in a regional effort.

The PARCC tests are more expensive than the multiple-choice “bubble tests” widely used today because they are designed to measure critical thinking skills, requiring students to write analytical essays and demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts. The test must be graded by hand and not by computers, adding to the cost, Chester said.

And test questions will be made public after the tests are administered, allowing students to learn from their wrong answers but requiring new questions for the next year.

“PARCC is going to be what could be called ‘tests worth taking’,” said Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s education commissioner. “Some of biggest concerns we all have is what has happened to curriculum and teaching when there is an over emphasis on a multiple-choice type assessment,” Gist said, referring to schools that teach test-taking skills and exclude any topics that are not covered by tests.

The Common Core tests designed by PARCC will be different, said Robert Hammond, Colorado’s education commissioner on Monday. He called it the “greatest assessment in the history of American public education.”

Chester would not say whether the defections of some states will raise costs for the remaining states that intend to use the new standardized tests.

Written by governors and state education officials in both parties and largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Common Core standards are designed so that students from kindergarten through 12th grade acquire the same skills and knowledge in reading and math, regardless of where they live. Historically, academic standards vary widely among states, and that patchwork nature has been partly blamed for mediocre rankings of U.S. students in international comparisons.

The Common Core standards do not dictate curriculum, allowing states to decide what to teach. Participating states have been rolling out the standards at different paces but all are expected to have them in place by the 2014-2015 school year.

Since 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia, have agreed to adopt the new standards.

But in recent months, the standards have been attacked by some conservatives and tea party activists, who say they amount to a federal intrusion into local school systems. They are also under fire from some progressives, who don’t like standardized tests and are uncomfortable with the role of the Gates Foundation. And some academics have criticized the reading standards as too weak.

The Obama administration has invested heavily in the idea of states agreeing to common standards and collaborating on tests. It awarded $330 million to two groups — PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — to develop valid, reliable tests that could be administered and compared across state lines.

PARCC received federal funding contingent on at least 15 states participating.

 
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