Alabama Common Core Tests May Examine Kids’ Motivation, Behavior

Published March 13, 2013

As Alabama legislators tabled a bill to withdraw from Common Core national standards, its department of education is adopting related tests and attempting to convince legislators and voters to keep the Core.

The day before the vote, state Superintendent Tommy Bice held a press conference to dispel “myths” about Common Core, a list of what K-12 children must know in English and Math that 45 states have adopted.

People in other states “could be concerned” about the federal government using Common Core to amass student data and steer education, but Alabama has sidestepped these dangers, Bice said.

Although some states adopted Common Core before it was released or with little public input, Bice said he conducted four regional hearings on it before the state board of education adopted it. An audience member said the meetings were poorly attended and at regional service centers, not schools closer to families and teachers. Approximately 200 people attended the meetings altogether, according to Alabama board of education minutes.

“Common Core has never been piloted,” said Jane Robbins, a senior fellow for the American Principles Project. “How can anyone say it is good for kids when it’s not in place anywhere?”

Sharing Student Data
Alabama did not receive coercive federal Race to the Top grants and was one of three states not to receive a federal grant to create massive connected student databases, Bice said. The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) has recently changed federal privacy laws to allow information collected on congressionally mandated annual tests to be shared with any companies, agencies, or people federal officials designate.

“Alabama has very strategically chosen not to be in one of the federally funded student testing consortia,” Bice said. Most states promised to replace their tests with ones currently under development by two Common Core “consortia,” or nongovernment nonprofits. Alabama’s board of education is instead considering new, Common Core-aligned tests for grades 3-12 from ACT, called Aspire, said board of education member Charles Elliott.

Although Alabama has fewer federal entanglements through Common Core than other states, its No Child Left Behind waiver application ties it into the Core because adopting it is one of the federal waiver requirements, Robbins said. Bice says the state combined Common Core with its standards, but approximately 90 percent of Alabama’s standards are identical to Common Core, Robbins said. In addition, Aspire tests measure whether students have learned Common Core, not any add-ons.

Finding New Tests
Alabama’s previous tests were decent but required students to answer a very low number of questions correctly to pass, said Deputy State Superintendent Sherrill Parris.

“What we’re aiming for now is to be able to see a benchmark for students as early as end of third grade to determine whether they are on track to be college- and career-ready as measured by ACT at the end of 12th grade,” she said. That language is almost identical to what ACT Vice President Paul Weeks used to describe Aspire in a phone interview.

The goal is for high school graduates to need no remediation if they attend college, whereas current remediation rates are high, Parris said. Alabama now administers the ACT to all 11th graders, but the goal is to “back-map” those college expectations to the very start of school, she said.

Parris said Alabama officials want to buy tests from elsewhere rather than develop their own.

Beyond Testing Knowledge
ACT Aspire is part of the next generation of standardized tests quite different from what most adults think of, Weeks said. The system will test kids not just at the end of the year, but repeatedly throughout the year and on computers to give instant feedback about what students have and have not learned. Questions are also no longer only multiple choice but will include open-ended prompts and even activities such as a virtual science experiment where students can “grab” flasks and “pour” liquids into a beaker, Weeks said.

Another component of ACT’s K-12 tests, called Engage, examines “academic behaviors.” These ask students to report whether they can manage their feelings, work well with others, and finish what they have started, for example. Teachers also rate students on these same qualities, such as “being willing to experience new things” and “listen to others’ points of view.” It’s currently for grades 6-9, but ACT is working to apply it to younger grades, too, Weeks said.

“It’s not psychological or personality testing,” Weeks cautioned, but checking habits that promote academic success. The idea is to warn teachers and parents so they can “intervene” before kids are “at risk,” he said.

“A lot of parents do this as a matter of course,” Weeks said. “You observe your teen is spending a lot of time in front of the TV and their grades are suffering. But lots of people don’t operate that way, and we can’t assume that all students are getting that same level of support.”

While the Alabama department of education moves full speed ahead on Common Core despite a persistent board of education minority against it, including Gov. Bob Bentley (R), lawmakers said they believe these institutions will step back from the Core so the legislature doesn’t have to. 

Image by Judy Baxter.