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Why Common Core tests won’t be what Arne Duncan promised

On Sept. 2, 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a speech called “Beyond The Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments.” Duncan was referring to standardized tests that were just then starting to be created to align with the Common Core State Standards. These tests, being developed by two multi-state consortia with $360 million in federal funds, promised to go beyond the familiar multiple-choice standardized tests that have been foisted on students for more than a decade with increasingly high stakes attached to the scores.

Duncan said in that speech to state leaders at Achieve’s American Diploma Project Leadership Team Meeting:

I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers–and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift–re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness–will not be the only first here.


For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for– tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.

Actually, and unfortunately, that isn’t what is happening. These tests — set to be given starting in the 2014-15 school year — aren’t going to be the “absolute game-changer” he predicted because of design constraints, timing and money problems and other issues. In fact, a new report from the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of educational leaders, said:

The progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.

How short will they fall from the desired goal? Below is a slide from Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher education and assessment, that was part of a PowerPoint presentation made last year at a meeting of the Innovation Lab Network,  a group of states brought together by the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the prime movers behind the Common Core initiative.

The two consortia now developing Common Core-aligned standardized tests, with federal grants, are the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. (PARCC just became a non-profit as part of its sustainability plan.).


Here’s more from the Gordon Commission report said:

The assessments that we will need in the future do not yet exist. The progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes. This is not a criticism of the Consortia per se but a realistic appraisal of the design constraints and timelines imposed upon their work from the outset. While America certainly can profit from the consortia’s work, the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in collaboration with the philanthropic community, should commit to a 10-year research and development effort to strengthen the capacity of the U.S. assessment enterprise to broaden the range of behaviors, characteristics and manifestations of achievement and related development that are the targets of assessment in education. This effort should be a partnership between not-for-profit organizations (existing or newly created), the for-profit sector, professional teacher organizations and universities. There are multiple models for this type of public-private research and development effort in bio-medicine, defense and other fields.


As discussed earlier, one goal of this effort should be the creation of assessment tasks that exemplify the type of learning that we want to occur in classrooms. Today, teaching to the test is seen as a negative consequence of accountability testing. With the proper assessment tools, it will be easier to encourage teaching to the underlying competencies as standard practice. In order to be practical, new ways of delivering and scoring such assessments will have to be developed.


Technologies for presenting rich and varied materials and for capturing and automating the scoring of written responses and other student behaviors currently exist and show promise. But they will need to continue to improve and be adapted for a variety of subjects in order for these new assessments to be widely used for a range of assessment purposes.


This expanded view of assessment will require the training and employment of broadly educated specialists in learning, cognition, measurement and assessment. It is recommended that the government and private philanthropies increase the number of pre- and post-doctoral scholars dedicated to the development of this expertise.


After $360 million, the new Common Core-aligned tests that were supposed to be revolutionary assessments won’t be all that much more advanced than the tests we have now. Some investment.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · April 2, 2013

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