The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Common Core’s testing framework is crumbling

Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

In 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a major speech praising the Common Core State Standards and new Core-aligned standardized tests that the Obama administration was funding and that would be developed by two multi-state consortia. He said:

Our children deserve that — and to remain competitive, our country does too. States in each consortium have agreed to set the same achievement levels or cut-scores on assessments — and we will ask the two consortia to collaborate to make results comparable across the state consortium. For the first time, it will be possible for parents and schools leaders to assess and compare in detail how students in their state are doing compared to students in other states. That transparency, and the honest dialogue it will create, will drive school reform to a whole new level.

In this same speech, titled, “Beyond the Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments,”  Duncan said the new tests would be a huge advancement from the current exams, which measure only a narrow band of what students know and are able to do:

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.

Four years later, Duncan turns out to have been wrong on both scores, and the testing framework that was supposed to be a major part of the Core initiative is falling apart.

It’s been clear for some time that the exams being designed by the two consortia — Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC — will not, in fact, be the quality  game-changer that Duncan envisioned. As has been noted on this blog before, design constraints, timing, financial problems and other issues have combined to make the leap into the next generation of assessments less dramatic than hoped for. A report last year from the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of education leaders, 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.

Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher education and assessment, said the new assessments being designed by the consortia will rank second on a five-step scale, with five at the top. Here’s a chart she provided:

The other factor affecting the testing framework is the loss of support as states keep pulling out of the consortia and declaring that they are designing their own state tests. With Tennessee’s recent departure from PARCC, that consortium is now down to 15 members, 14 states plus D.C. public schools, and Smarter Balanced has 22 members.

An Education Week analysis found that in the next school year, 19 different accountability tests will be given in various states in which, collectively, more than half of America’s students go to school. That’s a far different reality than Core supporters had hoped.

Meanwhile, some other members of the consortia are considering whether to stay or exit.

Just a few years ago, the Core initiative — a set of math and English/Language Arts standards and aligned standardized tests — had unusual bipartisan support and had been adopted fully by 45 states and the District of Columbia. That began to change when critics from all sides of the political spectrum began to emerge. Some found fault with the content of the standards, others with the design of the new tests, yet others with how the standards were written and by whom, and some objected on various levels to the amount of federal involvement in the enterprise.

The federal role became all-important to far-right-wingers who saw the Core as a federal conspiracy to turn students gay, or communist, or a range of other things. But even more sober-minded people felt the Obama administration had coerced states into adopting the standards with federal money and No Child Left Behind waivers.

It seems clear that one of the major reasons for the Core initiative — common tests that would allow cross-state comparisons of student performance —is not going to happen.

Here is the letter that Tennessee officials recently sent about its withdrawal from PARCC:

TN Parcc Withdrawal and Attachment