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What the new Common Core tests are — and aren’t


At a Senate education committee hearing this week on how the No Child Left Behind law should be rewritten, the subject quickly turned to standardized testing and whether the federal government should maintain NCLB’s annual testing mandate. Witnesses and legislators talked about the amount of time students are tested, the stakes tied to the scores for students and teachers, and the quality of the tests.  Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, praised new Common Core tests as being more sophisticated than earlier standardized testing. He said:

“The new generation of assessment which will be introduced this spring is a much more sophisticated set of assessment [than previous standardized tests used for accountability purposes].  It is much more around complex thinking, problem solving. It’s not about rote memorization.”

Well, actually, the new Common Core tests are not anywhere near as sophisticated as they were originally promoted to be several years ago when the Obama administration gave $360 million to two multi-state consortia to develop them.

Let’s review:

On Sept. 2, 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a speech called “Beyond The Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments.” He was talking about new standardized tests that were being created to align with the Common Core State Standards by two multi-state consortia created specifically for the task. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, were given a total of $360 million in federal funds to create the new tests, which were supposed to go well beyond the multiple-choice standards tests that students have been taking for many years and criticized for measuring very narrow bands of what students can do.

The two consortia developed different sets of assessments; both were designed for the computer, though paper versions are available and will be used in many states where schools do not have enough computer technology. PARCC’s exams consist of fixed questions for grades 3-11, most of them multiple choice; SBAC’s tests, for grades 3-8 and 11th grade, are computer adaptive, meaning that the difficulty changes as students answer each question. Both consortia developed summative exams, which are mandated, as well as optional diagnostic and interim exams.

Duncan was optimistic about the new tests, saying 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.

That’s not what has happened. Design constraints as well as money problems and other issues have all contributed to a result that is far less than being a game-changer in public education.

Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher education and assessment who served as a senior research advisor for the SBAC testing consortium, showed where the new assessments fit in the continuum of assessments in a slide that was part of a PowerPoint presentation she made a few years ago  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.

As you can see, the new exams are not even as sophisticated in assessing deeper learning as some exams already in use. This was reinforced in a report issued in 2013 by the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a group of educational leaders put together in 2011 by the Educational Testing Service to essentially assess assessment. Its report concluded:

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.

One of the original ideas behind the exams was that most students in the United States would be taking them, allowing for legitimate comparisons of student achievement from state to state. That notion has collapsed as a  number of states have pulled out of the testing regimes, especially from the PARCC consortium, which had 26 member states in 2010 but now has fewer than a dozen. Last week, Mississippi withdrew from PARCC and the Chicago public school system said it would defy a state mandate to give PARCC to all of its students this spring.

The tests are also supposed to be used as a key factor in accountability systems for educators, with student scores linked to the evaluations of teachers and principals. Assessment experts — including the American Statistical Association — 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.

New York State, which is part of PARCC, was so eager to start Common Core testing that it didn’t wait for the consortium to finish it work but paid millions of dollars to Pearson to design Core-aligned tests, which were given to students in 2013. There were so many problems with those exams that thousands of parents opted their children out of the test in 2014.

PARCC and SBAC field-tested their exams last year with millions of students, and last month PARCC began to officially give its exams to students in a handful of states.  The new age of Common Core testing is upon us.

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