Unwritten Tests Present Major Common Core Obstacle

Published January 28, 2013

Education leaders are beginning to publicly worry that two coalitions attempting to determine mandatory tests for some 40 million U.S. students by 2014 can’t pull their massive enterprise together by deadline or at all.

This threatens the entire Common Core project, which in 2014 will tie national tests to grade-by-grade education requirements 45 states adopted in math and English in 2010. Two networks, called SMARTER Balanced (SBAC) and Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), are creating separate tests.

“It’s easy to say Common Core is revolutionary, but implementing it is a completely different story,” said Andy Smarick, a former U.S. Education Department official who is now a partner at consulting nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. “High-ranking state officials are … betting the farm on PARCC and Smarter Balanced, hoping it’s going to be rigorous and delivered on time. If they have any reason to question any of that, they’re going to have great incentive to pull the reins and say, ‘I’m not going to ask my governor for millions for common assessments’ or ‘We’re not going to depend on someone else’s decision on cut scores.'”

Some big questions include: where the testing groups will get money once federal grants run out six months before the tests appear in classrooms in 2015; whether testmakers and states can handle the technical problems of creating and administering ambitious, online tests; and whether states will tolerate higher passing score requirements.

SBAC’s 25 member states educate 19 million U.S. K-12 students, and PARCC’s 22 member states educate 25 million (a few states are members of both).

Queasy Feeling About Testmakers
A January survey of “education insiders” from consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors found concern growing about SBAC and PARCC. Fifty-five percent thought PARCC was on the right track, while 27 percent thought the same of SBAC.

“Both continue to operate with such opacity it is hard to know where things stand,” the survey quoted from one responder.

“PARCC is focused on providing a higher quality product,” another respondent said.

The insiders include current and former state and federal education department officials, state school chiefs, governors, congressional staff, and education organization and think tank leaders.

“Both consortia are struggling mightily with getting the work done on time and with quality,” another said.

Technical Difficulties
Many school districts do not have the computers, bandwidth, and IT staff to administer Common Core tests, which will be entirely online by 2016-2017. These items are costly, and states are facing growing costs, particularly in healthcare and pensions.

Testmakers are also attempting to pull several testing advances together, which ambition may exceed possibility. This includes attempting to have artificial intelligence score open-ended test answers and create “adaptive” tests that throw up harder questions after correct answers and easier questions after incorrect answers, according to Tony Alpert, SBAC’s chief operating officer.

Even writing the software for such tests is incredibly complex, said David DeSchryver, Whiteboard’s vice president of education policy. It must work on a wide variety of computing devices, operating systems, and internet browsers, and operate simply for non-techies like most teachers and principals.

“If you’re taking an assessment for certain kids at the school [what if] you’re going to shut down wireless access in the cafeteria?” he said. “How do you manage this in a way you don’t have failure? We just don’t know. This hasn’t been tested in reality.”

The massive undertaking has a very small margin for failure, he and Smarick said, because state and school leaders will quickly abandon a glitchy, frustrating system.

Lifting ‘Cut Scores’
A major complaint against previous state standards and tests was that the federal government required states to have all students testing “proficient” by 2014 under the now-defunct 2001 No Child Left Behind law. In response, states set low “cut scores,” or passing grades. The Common Core consortia have promised to set higher standards, but that’s politically tricky because fewer children will pass the new tests, Smarick said.

Elected officials will feel heat from parents and teachers when many more students fail, but lowering standards for that reason essentially means lying to the public about U.S. schools’ quality, Thomas B. Fordham President Chester Finn Jr. wrote recently. States with big differences in average student achievement will likely tussle over setting one pass rate.

Show Me the Money
The federal government jumpstarted SBAC and PARCC with 2010 grants, but that money runs out by fall 2014. This means strapped states must soon pitch money at a new, complicated testing program likely to make their schools look bad, Smarick noted.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s big, it’s expensive, it’s technically challenging. If you get that right, then states are going to continue. If states get concerned about this, we’ll quickly realize the governors, state chiefs, legislators, and board members in power in 2014 are not the same ones who signed on to Common Core.”

The vastness of the project, and its likelihood of changing nearly everything about U.S. education, means a small accumulation of problems can derail it, Smarick said: “Under the best of circumstances it’s going to cause heartburn.”

Learn More
“The Complicated Economics of Testing in the Era of Common Core Standards,” Andy Smarick, January 23, 2013: http://educationnext.org/the-complicated-economics-of-testing-in-the-era-of-common-core-standards/.

“Cutting to the Chase,” Chester Finn Jr. January 24, 2013: http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-weekly/2013/january-24/cutting-to-the-chase.html.


Image by Alejandro C