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March Madness: Millions of kids being used as Common Core testing guinea pigs

ORLANDO, FL – MARCH 22: Luke Hancock #11 of the Louisville Cardinals is called for traveling against Mike McCall Jr. #11 of the Saint Louis Billikens in the second half during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Amway Center on March 22, 2014 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

If you think a bunch of college basketball teams facing off in a tournament is March Madness, consider this:

Starting this week and going into June, more than 4 million students in 36 states and the District of Columbia are “field testing” (read it: being used as human guinea pigs) English and math standardized tests that are being created as part of the Obama administration-supported Common Core State Standards initiative.

Kids are spending hours taking exams and answering surveys designed to help complete new Common Core-aligned exams being created by two multi-state consortia with $360 million in federal funding. The sole purpose of the field testing is to help the test creators tease out any problems with questions and/or the online administration of the exams. The scores won’t be shared with teachers, parents, schools or anybody else. 

(Next time you hear people worrying about lost instructional time for snow days or anything else, remember this use of the school day.)

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia signed on to both the math and English Core standards, and most states joined one of the two test-creating consortia in the last few years. But as controversy around the creation and implementation of the Core has grown in recent months, a number of states have withdrawn from the testing groups and some are rethinking their Core commitment. Indiana this week became the first state to officially withdraw from the Core (though the new Indiana standards being put forward are very similar).

The two consortia –Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — have been working on the new tests, which are supposed to be officially implemented in most states in the 2014-15 school year. The tests will be used as a key factor in new accountability systems for educators pushed by the Obama administration that link student scores to the evaluations of teachers and principals. Assessment experts have warned policy makers not to use student test scores to evaluate educators because the method isn’t reliable and valid enough for high-stakes use, but the idea nevertheless became popular with school reformers who put these accountability systems into place anyway.

SBAC is testing more than 3 million students in 22 states, while PARCC  is  testing more than 1 million students in the District and 14 states. According to this story by my colleagues Emma Brown and Lyndsey Layton, about 65,000 Maryland students will participate in the field test, including at least one classroom in nearly every school in the state. In the District, about 5,000 students in 135 traditional public schools as well as public charter schools will take the PARCC field test. In Maryland, kids who take the PARCC field test don’t have to take the annual state standardized test, but in D.C., all kids still have to take to the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment Test exam.

PARCC’s website has published posts about the field testing this week, sometimes providing hourly reports with numbers of tests started and completed. For example, on Wednesday, one post said:

Numbers update:
We have had over 5,000 more students complete tests in the last hour. See a breakdown of our updated numbers below:
Over 37,000 new tests started today
Over 66,000 tests completed since Monday
Over 136,000 tests started since Monday


2:00 pm (ET)
Here is a quick rundown of today’s testing numbers:
Over 36,000 new tests started today
Over 60,000 tests completed since Monday
Over 130,000 tests started since Monday

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said some time ago that the new exams would be “game-changing” and a vast improvement over the familiar multiple-choice standardized tests that could assess only a narrow band of what students are supposed to know and be able to do. But, as it turns out, they won’t be a big leap into the future because there wasn’t enough time or money to develop truly ground-breaking exams. A 2013 report by 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. 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.

Another potential problem for the Core testing initiative is the fact that the exams are being designed to be taken by computer but many districts don’t have the technological capacity to give them in that manner. Some districts will wind up using paper versions.

Meanwhile, with the federal test-creating grants running out later this year, the future of the two consortia is not clear. But for now, they’ve got a pretty good deal: They get millions of field testing subjects — for free.