Getting Real about the Common Core

A foundation staffer I think well of posed these vexing questions the other day:

With the transition to the new Common Core assessments, states will have a number of decisions around how they use the new tests. Some of the most consequential are around possible use of the tests for high school exit or grade promotion. These are obviously sticky subjects. Should we be scrapping exit exams, especially given that they tend to be 9th-grade level at best anyway? Is there a need for an overall re-thinking and rationalization of state testing in general—rather than piling more on top?

Here’s what I think:

States today have sharply divergent views of what stakes, if any, to attach to test results for kids. Several have test-based 3rd-grade reading “gates” that you must pass to advance to 4th grade (Jeb Bush said the other day that “Seven states have started on this journey”). A few have “kindergarten-readiness” assessments (though those are more often teacher “checklists” than tests). And the last time I checked, about half the states have statewide exit tests that are prerequisite to graduating from high school, though it’s true that most peg such exams to what are today deemed 9th- or 10th-grade standards. (Under Common Core, I’d wager, a bunch of current state exit tests would correlate more with 7th- or 8th-grade standards!)

Some states also have end-of-course exams in high school, the passing of which is related to getting a diploma, and there’s a widening belief in educator-land that this is a better course of action than a single statewide exit test.

But a lot of states do none of those things because they don’t really believe in high stakes for kids (or can’t get away with it politically, or are totally into “local control”), and they tend to trust teacher judgment when it comes to passing students from grade to grade or awarding the course credits that, when accumulated, yield a diploma.

Remember that even where states require passing an exit exam as a condition of high school graduation, I’m not aware of a single place where the resulting diploma is automatically accepted by colleges as evidence of readiness for credit-bearing courses. Nor am I aware of employers who accept it willy-nilly as evidence of employability, at least not in modern-style jobs—which is to say, exit exams (and end-of-course exams) have currency within the K–12 world, but the real world doesn’t yet give them much credit. On the other hand, nobody has ever claimed (to my knowledge) that passing the state’s exit exam signifies true “college/workforce readiness,” which is what Common Core purports to do. (Passing an AP exam with a high-enough score may yield actual college credit, not just placement in college-level courses.)

Big changes lie ahead, but these are fraught with peril. If the “cut scores” (still to be set by the two assessment-building consortia) on new Common Core assessments at the 12th grade level truly signify college/workforce readiness and are accepted as such by the real world, the failure rate will be enormous for years to come and the political pushback will be powerful. How many states can withstand not giving diplomas to large fractions of kids who have persisted in school through 12th grade? Yet if they continue to give diplomas to just about everyone who persists, then many of those diplomas will continue not to signify college-workforce readiness and the real-world incentive/benefit effect will continue to be lost.

Major league dilemma here! As higher standards gain traction from kindergarten upward and as kids entering, say, 9th grade really have attained the Common Core’s 8th grade standards, this issue may resolve itself. But it will take a decade or more after the new standards are in place (and the new assessments begin to be administered) before this transformation will work its way through the system—if indeed it ever does.

States will want, and probably need, to handle this differently from one another. But a near-immediate dilemma faces the assessment consortia regarding the setting of “cut scores” and definition of proficiency: Will these definitions be uniform for all states using the new assessments or will each state set its own? If the latter, much of the benefit of a “common” standard will be lost. If the former, there’s going to be a huge ruckus within the consortia about how high or low to set those passing scores. (Keep in mind that Alabama and Arkansas, for example, belong to the same consortium as do Maryland and Massachusetts.)

I think three important things should happen—but all will be contentious.

First, the consortia should set more than one “cut score” on their new exams. I don’t mean different state-to-state—I mean uniform but multiple, akin to NAEP, with its “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” But this time, it should be more like “minimal,” “tolerable,” and “truly college/career ready.” This should be done at all grade levels, and kids (and parents and teachers) need to see the steep trajectory if they want to get from, say, minimal in 3rd grade to tolerable in 7th grade and “truly ready” by the end of high school.

Second, states should—for some years, but maybe not forever—award two kinds of high school diplomas: One will resemble the old kind and represents Carnegie units or maybe passing an old-style exit exam (or both), and nobody will claim that it denotes college/career readiness. The new one, however, will correlate with the “truly ready” level on the Common Core assessments (and whatever additional graduation requirements a state may want to impose in other subjects).

Third, to make worthwhile the pain and suffering that kids and teachers and schools will endure to achieve that “truly ready” diploma, it’s got to be useful in the real world. This is to say, a great many colleges must accept it as evidence of readiness for college-level work (at least in math and English), and a bunch of employers must do the equivalent.

Maybe the old-style diploma can be phased out over a decade. Or maybe not. This depends on how desirable or practical one thinks it is to try to get everyone up to college-entrance level by the end of high school. That’s a topic for another day—but I’ve got my doubts. Maybe I’m haunted by NCLB’s pious but feckless declaration that everyone in America would be “proficient” by 2014.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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