Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Core Testing in Action: How Did It Go?

Flickr/Judy Baxter

This academic year marks a critical juncture for the Common Core, as most states started testing students on the standards for the first time. The beginning has had some rough moments, with thousands of students opting out of the tests, especially in New York and New Jersey, and technology glitches in some states disrupting the assessments.

But participants on a testing panel at the Education Writers Association’s April conference in Chicago, while conceding that there have been problems, took steps to defend the assessments.

“It’s going pretty smoothly. I could not imagine it going as smoothly as it’s gone,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which played a key role in helping to develop the Common Core standards.

“Florida’s system crashed yesterday,” responded panel moderator Jeffrey Solochek, who covers education for the Tampa Bay Times, during the April 21 panel.

“Is it working today?” Minnich replied. “Yes,” Solochek said.

“I was test director in Oregon when we did the first online testing in 2003,” Minnich added. “We only had 28 schools (testing) and four or five crashed. The kids didn’t care. They went back the next day (and finished).”

Minnich characterized the Florida crash as “growing pains,” part of the process of rolling out the tests officially for the first time.

“Did the commonness of Common Core fail? States are falling off rapidly,” Solochek said, referring to the decision by some states to abandon earlier plans to use common assessments developed by either PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

“I don’t think we’re done with the conversation. We could begin to see the states working together,” Minnich said.

When asked about the high-profile efforts this spring by some parents to opt their children out of testing, Minnich said he takes it seriously even though he disagrees with the strategy.

“It’s a signal that parts of the country aren’t happy with what we’re doing on assessment,” Minnich said. “And it’s a signal we need to take very seriously as an education community. I also think the kids should take the tests.” He added, “I don’t know what the next thing that parents could refuse” would be. “While I’m sympathetic, I believe kids need to take the tests. It’s a slippery slope to when parents start opting their kids out of finals and lots of other things they might dislike.”

“Part of this [concern over testing] has to do with excessive testing going on during the school year,” said panelist James Pellegrino, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is an expert on educational assessment.

“There’s interim assessments, diagnostic assessments, benchmark assessments. This [Common Core testing] gets layered on top of that. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Pellegrino said.

The professor said some districts are trying to cut back on the number of tests administered. “It’s like cleaning out your garage,” he said.

The two panelists cautioned that it may take some time for students to adjust to the new exams.

“The first year of official testing may not be representative of what kids can do,” in Minnich’s words.

The new tests “have more challenging content that many kids have not had as much of an opportunity to learn,” Pellegrino said. “You would expect significant growth over the years,” the professor added.

The panelists cautioned that with new tests, it’s not valid to compare the achievement from this year’s exams with the prior year. In effect, the scores create a new baseline. At the same time, it is possible to compare scores school by school and district by district.

Also, Minnich said a valid external barometer for this spring’s test results is achievement levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.” If the share of students scoring proficient on the state exam are out of sync with NAEP results, he suggested that should lead reporters to start asking questions.

But progress over time is what really matters, Pellegrino said. Once the baseline is established, the idea is to see individual schools improve their scores over time.

Minnich noted that most states have postponed attaching accountability stakes to scores on the new exams this year. Pellegrino said he thinks that’s a smart move, as there’s still a lot to learn about what performance on the new exams really means.

Also during the panel, Minnich invoked a statistic mentioned in other workshops at the seminar: “Institutions of higher learning complained that 35 percent of entering freshmen needed remedial courses before they could tackle college-level work,” he said. The Common Core and the accompanying tests were developed in part as a way to address this problem. In fact, the idea is that colleges and universities would use scores from the Common Core exams to guide decisions about whether incoming college students could immediately begin taking courses for credit in math and English.

“It would be foolish of us to say it should be zero” entering freshmen needing remedial work, Minnich said. “But how do you make the transition so kids go to college and don’t have to take remedial courses? That is a huge win for kids who can show they can go right into college courses.”