One Test to Rule Them All?

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“I gave you the chance of aiding me willingly, but you have elected the way of pain.” – Saruman, The Fellowship of the Ring

The state of New York released results of its Common Core-aligned tests recently; scores fell dramatically.  Kentucky has also used Common Core-aligned tests and saw a similar pattern.  Scores on large-scale assessments typically drop in the first year of a new test, then rebound and slowly start to climb again as teachers and students get used to the new requirements.

The Common Core test program was intended to replace state tests, but CCSS only covers English and Math; if a state gives test in other subjects, or if a state has a battery of high school tests required for graduation, many of those would remain.  We were never very likely to have just one Common Core test, used nationwide (the “One Test”).  PARCC and SBAC, the two multistate testing consortia, were created early on in the process.  Tests built by the PARCC Consortium, to which both New York and Kentucky belong (but which has lost a few members recently) is scheduled to administer its tests in the 2014-15 school year.  Now, several more testing companies are trying to get into the game.

The PARCC and SBAC tests may be of higher quality than existing state tests in many cases, though more expensive.  PARCC’s assessment design, for example, calls for replacing one massive end-of-year test with a series of tests.  This is a wise move, as far as assessment practice goes, and many school systems give some form of “benchmark” tests now.  Some of the individual items I’ve seen seem to be reasonable and of good quality.  The “Mid-Year Assessments” which PARCC designates as “optional are…optional.  But a state which chooses to give them will, of necessity, be choosing to push local schools into following a particular instructional calendar in order to do well on the tests.  This is the most direct way the Common Core could influence individual classrooms.

Still and yet, the Common Core should not be seen as a black or white issue or a conspiracy.  It has well-intentioned supporters, with some reasonable desires.  They want children to be able to stay on track when they move from state to state, and not repeat or miss material.  They want to see how states stack up against each other.  On this note, though, we already have a national test: the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  This set of tests allows states to be compared to each other, and, in some cases, to large city school systems, as well as to private schools as a group.  NAEP cannot be used for individual school accountability.  And a reasonable question to ask, then, is what is the better system of accountability and what has more potential to improve schools: adopting a de facto national curriculum, and designing more and more complex rules to ensure we can test every possible student, in ways narrowly defined by national actors; or, might we simply let a thousand flowers bloom, and enable parents to choose between them more freely?

I will leave it to others to ponder the electoral implications of the CCSS.  Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute (a CCSS supporter) and Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform (a CCSS opponent) clearly laid out the opposing philosophical sides, and discussed the implications of the test, and the CCSS project as a whole in 2011:

If nothing else, charity calls for us to assume our opponents’ intentions are good.  But that doesn’t make their policy prescriptions correct.  And in any case, policy debates should be over opponents’ actual arguments, not their intentions.  The major concern we should have with the Common Core project is that the massive policy and legal machinery we will have to build to enable it to work can be too easily abused, the implementation issues require the fatal conceit, and any problems that arise will affect a whole nation of students, all at once.  The practical benefits of the CCSS are hopes at best; we already have experience with the predictable problems associated with detailed, nationwide public policy projects.

The CCSS is a voluntary undertaking, but given the US Department of Education’s incorporation of CCSS into Race to the Top, into No Child Left Behind waivers, and the current secretary calling its opponents “fringe” elements this summer, legitimate questions remain about the project’s independence and states’ ongoing ability to aid the project willingly.  This all may be a moot point in the end due to state-level costs, but testing requirements have much more capacity to be invasive in local schools than do the standards themselves.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Eric Wearne is an assistant professor of education at a college outside Atlanta, and teaches undergraduate courses on assessment. He also teaches literature at St. John Bosco Academy, a hybrid homeschool/private high school, and is a founding board member at Latin Academy Charter School, a startup middle school in Atlanta. Prior to joining the faculty, Eric served as Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, where he helped design and conduct Georgia’s first statewide standardized testing audit. His work has been published by the Journal of School Choice, the Cato Institute, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He began his career as a high school English teacher, and is a convert to the Catholic faith. He also writes at www.ericwearne.com.

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