Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Core: Should States Slow Down on Implementing New Assessments?

EWA is holding a one-day seminar for journalists today at George Washington University on the new Common Core State Standards, and I look forward to sharing content from the event with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the rollout of the assessments tied to the new standards was the focus of one of the panel discussions at EWA’s 66th National Seminar held in May at Stanford. We asked John Fensterwald of EdSource Today to contribute a guest post from that session.

The call by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten for a moratorium on using Common Core test results to evaluate teachers and judge schools resonated with two of the three speakers in the EWA discussion on the assessments at the organization’s National Seminar at Stanford University.

“I have reluctance to see assessments used for lots of high-stakes purposes,” said James Pellegrino, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of an advisory committee for two groups developing the new tests. “There is a great deal of caution by technical advisory groups on how the results will be used and at what level they will be able to be used for growth measures” – like evaluating teachers based on a projected growth on student test scores.

Joan Herman, co-director emeritus of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA, said, “The assessments should go on schedule, but I am sympathetic with a moratorium on high-stakes uses, for consequences for teachers and schools.” Herman is an adviser for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the two states-led organizations creating the tests with $360 million in federal funding.

But Chris Minnich, executive director of CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers), which led the effort to create the Common Ccore standards, observed that “states have not been sympathetic to Randi’s call” for a delay in implementing the assessments. There will always be those who argue states aren’t ready for the scheduled rollout in the spring of 2015. What’s important, he said, is “to draw a firm line on school and district accountability” and to report the results of the assessments at the school site level.

Both Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), the other consortium, are promising a new generation of computer-based tests capable of measuring the critical thinking skills that the common core standards stress. They intend to do this through sophisticated and lengthy questions that require students to solve problems and synthesize information. Both consortia will offer non-high-stakes examples of these questions during the year, Pellegrino said, “to signal in important ways the skills and knowledge that kids need to have.”

Herman said these “performance assessments,” which will require students to explain their thinking or make arguments, will pose “enormous challenges”: expense and time to score, particular difficulties for English language learners, and technical issues dealing with the types of questions asked and the previous knowledge they assume students possess.

Technical meltdowns in states giving online tests recently raise doubts about whether most states will have systems in place for Common Core assessments – even though both consortia will have pencil-and-paper options for the first three years. Minnich acknowledged that capacity problems are real. “As a country, we have not invested in schools as well as we should have,” he said. “States must invest in technology, but the feds need to help as well.”

Among other challenges, Herman said, is the need to provide teachers with time, curricula and instructional materials to understand what Common Core standards look like in practice. Some states and organizations like Student Achievement Partners, she said, are offering model lessons, while others simply point to resources. Pellegrino warned that publishers are rebranding existing materials as PARCC and Smarter Balanced ready, “and a lot of that is absolute BS.”

Herman and Pellegrino said that states must prepare parents and temper expectations. “The first time out of the box, kids will not perform well” on the new assessments, Pellegrino said.

But that’s to be expected from more rigorous standards and tests, Herman said. “If kids do not do poorly on them, what is the point of going to a new assessment? It is important for the public to understand that this is the starting point from which to move up.”

Pellegrino cautioned that the new assessments themselves are in their infancy. “By the time PARCC and Smarter Balanced will be done with their funding, they will have moved us from the 10 to maybe the 40 yard line in terms of the kinds of assessments we need to support teaching and learning,” he said. “There will be more work to do.”

With some parents calling for opting out of standardized tests, some teachers calling for a moratorium and some legislatures reconsidering Common Core, resistance is growing, though hard to measure. Minnich downplayed it. Six years ago, CCSSO never expected that 45 states and Washington, D.C., would adopt the standards.

“We knew there would be pushback to change standards across the country, but there aren’t a lot of cracks there,” he said. “Most states are saying Common Core is the right thing for kids.”


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