A Flexible Way Forward for a Wobbly Standards-and-Testing Apparatus


Nat Malkus’s new publication on K-12 testing has the stuff of a top-notch policy brief on a complicated topic: it’s timely, straightforward, creative, and feasible.

Nat brings together an evolving political reality and an ongoing practical challenge and offers a workable solution. He highlights, first, that President-elect Trump repeatedly spoke against Common Core during the campaign, that his selection for Secretary of Education suggests a decentralized approach to K-12 policymaking, that many states have recently shown a desire to rethink testing, and that the GOP controls more and more state governments. In total, that foretells that our existing standards-and-testing apparatus — largely premised on national uniformity and comparability — may be wobbly.

However, because of the way that standards and tests operate, it’s quite difficult for a state to extricate itself from a system that prioritizes similarity across the states. One of the aims of Common Core was to maximize the number of America’s students being taught the same basic content. Because we want to know whether students are learning, we need to assess; and so the Obama administration funded the creation of two tests. Both would be “aligned” with Common Core (that is, accurately gauge if boys and girls were acquiring what the standards have in mind), and each state could choose which test they preferred.

The problem (for those who believe in state flexibility) is that if a state wants to customize its standards or assessments to better suit its particular characteristics or beliefs, we quickly lose the ability to compare results across states. That is, if a state changes its standards in some way, the two national tests probably won’t accurately measure what that state’s kids are being taught. And if a state wants to use a test different than one of the two federally funded assessments — even if the state keeps the common standards — the results of that new test may not be comparable to the results of the existing tests.

So how in the world do we simultaneously enable states to differentiate themselves, preserve the benefits of cross-state comparability, and make use of the substantial federal investments already made in these two testing systems?

Nat’s idea is to create a common pool of test items that states would use on a voluntary basis; done smartly, this could, he believes, address each of these issues. His brief describes the recent history of testing, lays out the challenges of the current arrangements, and explains how to navigate some serious technical challenges. There would still be tough questions to answer, for instance related to expense and the roles of testing companies and the federal government. But these, he argues, are solvable.

If you’re a state or federal policymaker engaged in K-12 issues, you should consider Nat’s proposal. And if you’re at all interested in standards, assessments, accountability, and/or the consequences of the federal government’s deep engagement in key elements of schooling, I think you’ll find this brief very much worth your time.

—Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, president of the Maryland State Board of Education, and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

This post originally appeared on AEIdeas.

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