Common Core Assessments: More Tests, But Not Much Better
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Under No Child Left Behind, states set standards and developed assessments. NCLB’s failure to spur achievement or close achievement gaps led to unproven claims that national or “common” standards were the missing piece of the education puzzle. With millions in federal Race to the Top money and NCLB “waivers” as incentives, all but a few states have adopted the Common Core standards. Two multi-state consortia—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—won federal grants to develop tests to measure the new standards. These tests will be in full use in the 2014-15 school year. Since most states have joined a consortium, it is important to understand what the new exams will mean for our schoolchildren.
More grades will be tested, with more testing per grade. NCLB triggered an unprecedented testing explosion (Guisbond, et al., 2012). The Common Core will compound the problem. SBAC (2012) and PARCC (2012) will continue mandatory annual English/language arts (ELA) and math testing in grades 3-8. In high school, SBAC includes mandatory reading and math testing in 11th grade, while PARCC’s plan is for three years of testing in ELA and math. PARCC also requires high schoolers to take a speaking and listening test. For kindergarten through second grade, PARCC adds voluntary “formative” tests. Both consortia call for two required exams annually, and both encourage states to use consortium interim tests two to three times each year. Preschool testing will come from the U.S. Department of Education’s early childhood version of Race to the Top (U.S. DOE, 2012). As with NCLB, federal mandates create a market for interim tests to prep students for high-stakes exams.
Lured by federal funds, states agreed to buy “pigs in a poke.” The new tests do not yet exist except for a few carefully selected sample items, so it is not possible to judge their quality. Nevertheless, states are committing large sums of taxpayer money for the equivalent of “vaporware”—much hype, little substance. New drugs must be carefully tested before release lest they do more harm than good. Yet, these new measures are being pushed through with at most one year of trials. There’s no guarantee that they will function as advertised and many reasons to believe they will not.
The new exams are a mixed bag, only marginally better than current tests. The new tests will only assess a narrow slice of what students need to know and be able to do. Mostly administered by computer, the proposed tests will remain largely multiple-choice. Some questions will require written responses, as many states already require, and there will be one performance task. The performance tasks may be well designed, and these items may better assess critical thinking, but many will be “beatable” through coaching. Most prototype items, however, look like current standardized tests (PARCC, 2012; SBAC, 2012). For example, some math questions are simple computation tasks buried in complex “word problems.” Measurement experts fear it will be extremely difficult to write thousands of higher quality items before 2014-15. Samples also suggest the exams may be more difficult than current state tests. But harder is not always better. It is also not clear what the “passing” scores will be or who will set them.
High-stakes misuses of test scores remain unchanged, extending the damaging effects of NCLB. Under Race to the Top and NCLB waiver rules, states must use exam results to evaluate both schools and teachers. As a result, the Common Core tests will still control, distort and corrupt the curriculum. Researchers and testing experts have shown the negative consequences of using student exam results to evaluate teachers (Baker, et al., 2009; FairTest, 2011). Under NCLB, control over teaching and learning largely passed from local districts to the federal government. Under the new tests, parents, communities and even states will lose even more power. In addition, many states and districts are likely to misuse the new tests as a high school graduation or grade promotion requirement. The negative consequences land most heavily on low-income students, those of color or with a disability, and English language learners (FairTest, 2012).
Companies with poor track records will design, administer and score Common Core exams. The same old firms, including Pearson, Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill, will produce the tests. These corporations have long histories of mistakes and incompetence. The multi-national conglomerate Pearson, for example, has been responsible for poor-quality items, scoring errors, computer system crashes and missed deadlines. Despite these failures, Pearson is sharing $23 million in contracts to design the first 18,000 items in the PARCC’s test bank (Gewertz, 2012).
Poor districts will have to cut instructional staff and other basic services to divert money to testing. The move to new standards and tests sets the stage for a huge transfer of resources from cash-strapped schools to testing companies (Samtani, 2012). Federal grants will cover initial test production, but funding for continued development and administration, including scoring, is uncertain. In addition, many schools lack the necessary computer infrastructure (Herbert, 2012). States and districts will have to invest in expensive new equipment, wiring and broadband. Costs will greatly exceed benefits. This money would be better spent on educational essentials such as teachers and books.
Enormous amounts of time will be wasted. Too few computers are available in many schools. To accommodate all students, testing will have to go on for weeks. This will cause even more disruption as classes are put on hold to allow test-taking. Computer labs will be unavailable for teaching and learning. Test prep will remain a huge time-waster, likely eating up even more learning time than it now does.
America’s children, teachers, parents, communities and the nation deserve better. High-quality assessment can improve teaching and learning and provide useful information about schools. Examples of better assessments include well-designed formative assessments (FairTest, 2006), performance assessments that are part of the curriculum (New York Performance Standards Consortium), and portfolios or Learning Records (FairTest, 2007) of actual student work. Schools can be evaluated using multiple sources of evidence that includes limited, low-stakes testing, school quality reviews, and samples of ongoing student work (Neill, 2010).
Baker, E., et al. 2009. "Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers," Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper, http://epi.3cdn.net/b9667271ee6c154195_t9m6iij8k.pdf
FairTest, 2006. “The Value of Formative Assessment.” http://www.fairtest.org/value-formative-assessment
FairTest, 2007. “The Learning Record.” http://www.fairtest.org/learning-record
FairTest. 2011. “Flawed Massachusetts Teacher Evaluation Proposal Risks Further Damage to Teaching and Learning.” http://www.fairtest.org/flawed-ma-teacher-evaluation-proposal-report-home
FairTest, 2012. “How Standardized Testing Damages Education.” http://www.fairtest.org/how-standardized-testing-damages-education-pdf
Gewertz, C. 2012. “Questions Dog Design of Tests,” Education Week. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/07/31/37act.h31.html
Guisbond, L., Neill, M., and Schaeffer, R. 2012. NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure? (Boston: FairTest), http://www.fairtest.org/NCLB-lost-decade-report-home.
Herbert, M. July/August 2012. “Common Core Testing Online Without Constant Connectivity?” District Administration. http://www.districtadministration.com/article/common-core-testing-online...
Neill, M. June 18, 2010. “A Better Way to Assess Students and Evaluate Schools,” Education Week. http://www.fairtest.org/better-way-assess-students-and-evaluate-schools
New York Performance Standards Consortium. http://performanceassessment.org
Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Item and Task Prototypes. 2012. http://www.parcconline.org/samples/item-task-prototypes#6.
Samtani, H. 2012. “Common Core Standards Boon to E-Learning Industry,” Schoolbook. The New York Times. http://www.schoolbook.org/2012/08/03/common-core-standards-boon-to-e-lea...
Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. A Summary of Core Components. 2012. http://www.smarterbalanced.org/resources-events/publications-resources/p....
U.S. Department of Education. 2012. Race to the Top -- Early Learning Challenge. http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-earlylearningchallenge/index.html.
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