Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Core: Angles on Assessments

Jacqueline King speaks at the 67th National Seminar.

The current generation of assessments being taken by students across the country is something like a bad boyfriend. 

That’s according to Jacqueline King of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, who made the point at EWA’s National Seminar held last month at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. When a better guy (or test) comes along, she continued, it’s hard to take it seriously.

“We’ve seen ones in our states that we didn’t think much of, and we’ve got a natural and healthy skepticism about assessment,” King said.

She joined five other speakers charged with presenting “Angles on Assessment,” who alternately argued that new, Common Core-aligned assessments will truly improve student testing; that individual states are moving irresponsibly quickly to switch to new assessments; and that important questions about their implementation remain unanswered. 

Joining King in praising the possibilities of new assessments was Laura Slover, the CEO of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. She argued that her group’s tests will include interactive elements and require critical thinking skills, limiting the temptation for teachers to “drill and kill.”

For example, she said, a new PARCC test item requires a student to read a piece of the Declaration of Independence, a passage by Patrick Henry, and watch a short video—and to use evidence from all three to write an essay about “notions of government.”

“A very different test emerges,” she said. 

Kristen DiCerbo from GlassLab — a collaboration between Institute of Play, the Entertainment Software Association, Electronic Arts, Educational Testing Service, Pearson’s Center for Digital Data, Analytics & Adaptive Learning and others – pointed out that much of what teachers and students take for granted about standardized tests is just the result of technological limitations of the past—like antiquated classroom computers. 

Slover and King both pointed to new tools for students that their computer-based tests make possible, including a highlighter and a glossary available in Mandarin. (That said, PARCC and Smarter Balanced are both testing paper-and-pencil versions of their assessments.)

“The point is that PARCC or Smarter Balanced don’t have, or won’t have, a monopoly on student misery around student test-taking. But it really doesn’t have to feel like this,” Slover said.

But in his presentation, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the makers of the new assessments still have plenty of questions to answer.

For one, he asked, how will scores be compared among students who are using different devices, from desktop computers to 10-inch iPads? And who will account for the large windows that states have to administer the tests, potentially allowing one state to administer their assessments 12 weeks before another?

“Somebody’s got to run 150 yards in the same time someone else has to run 100 yards. This is a problem,” Hess said.

He pointed to Florida’s recent addition of handwriting to its standards as an example of an additional tangle of questions: Who “owns” common standards, and who decides what tests are an acceptable way to measure progress?

Slover, King, and DiCerbo didn’t have time to answer most of those directly. But Tommy Bice, Alabama’s state superintendent of education, offered his state’s solution: find a way to use a test Alabama residents already trusted.

Bice explained that he knew anything connected with “anything out of Washington” would have been dead on arrival. (Alabama dropped out of both Smarter Balanced and PARCC.) So Alabama introduced a series of exams developed by ACT for the state that are meant to be used from kindergarten through age 20. The state legislature has also explicitly barred the use of those tests in teacher or school evaluations.

Carol Burris, the widely read blogger and principal of Long Island’s South Side High School, was left to criticize some of the topic’s basic premises: whether the Common Core standards, and tests tied to multiple measures of student, teacher, and school achievement, have raised the stakes too far, too quickly.

“Some people say that the New York problem is a problem with implementation,” she said. “I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a problem with full implementation. Both the accountability system, the testing, and the Common Core all happening at once.”

During a brief question and answer session, King and Slover acknowledged that a number of states had backed out of the testing consortia over politics or cost. 

Burris pushed back against the idea that anti-testing sentiment was only political, referring back to the parents and teachers who have been raising red flags about a system that makes students anxious and sick.

“To say it’s all about politics is not telling the full story,” she said. “It’s coming from right across the political spectrum.”


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