Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Core Tests: Ready Or Not?

Students at Birch Elementary School in Reading, Mass. (Flickr/Heather Johnson, EOE)

From California to New York, educators have by and large maintained their support for the Common Core State Standards after putting the new grade-level expectations into action. But the new tests are another story, according to a panel of experts speaking at a recent EWA seminar at Stanford University.

The new set of assessments would provide a “huge opportunity to move beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests,” said Deven Carlson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, speaking to the critical thinking demanded from the new tests. For the first time, states will also be using the same academic standards and tests, allowing unprecedented school comparisons across state borders.

“Previously, you had the same tests, but not the same standards,” Carlson told the EWA audience on Nov. 18.

Educators in the throes of early implementation, however, are finding the devil is in the details of assessing these new standards.

“These testing companies have never done this before,” Carlson said. “There’s a steep learning curve.”

For that reason, states’ plans vary.

California refused to administer standardized tests last year, irking the U.S. Department of Education.

“We had a ‘snow year,’” said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a research center supported by Stanford University and the University of Southern California, as well as UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley. 

Last year was the field test for the new Common Core tests in California and 16 other states belonging to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. While there were “no serious glitches” with the field test, it was “patched together with glue,” Plank said.

“There is a serious apprehension that when we go live this year, there will be serious glitches,” he said.

That’s why Ben Hayes, chief accountability officer for Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev., advises another testing year without stakes attached or using student scores for teachers’ evaluations. Nevada implemented Common Core in 2011, which has given its educators “space to try their own things and shift instruction” before students are tested on the new, more rigorous standards, he said.

“I’m a fan of test scores. They tell us a lot,” said Hayes, although he warned against judging schools or the success of Common Core based on test scores in the first few years.

Unlike Nevada and California, New York created its own tests separate from both Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is another alliance – 12 states and the District of Columbia – creating standardized tests for Common Core. New York is a member of the PARCC consortium, but state leaders wanted to push for assessments linked to the Common Core earlier rather than later.

The standards and new tests have arrived at the same time in New York, and didn’t provide teachers with a safe space to adjust, according to Maura Henry, who teaches English as a second language at Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, New York.

“The standards are actually very popular,” said Henry, while noting the frustration over the rushed implementation. “There was a lot of pushback, a lot of opting out”  by parents not wanting their children to take the new tests.

Beyond concerns over the tests themselves, there’s an elephant in the room: The technological challenge of moving from paper tests to online-only assessments, which has caused some states to drop out of Common Core altogether.

These tests may cost relatively little – $25 to $30 per student – but that doesn’t account for other expenses that could quickly add up. Many schools will need to upgrade their internet systems to handle the load of so many students online at once, speakers noted.

Henry told of a school that was lucky enough to have one laptop per student, but blew a fuse when the children all plugged in.

“The school didn’t have the power,” she said.

Most schools won’t have that problem because they won’t have the needed computers.  They’ll be stuck finding a way to get every student tested with only one or two computer labs, panelists said. And, as Carlson pointed out, “that’s going to be a heavy lift.”