Is Common Core Running Off the Rails Already? Waving the Caution Flag

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Like I’ve said before, I’ve mixed feelings on the whole Common Core enterprise–largely because I find it easy to envision scenarios where it fails in ways that undermine promising improvement efforts. But the effort also has real promise, which is why I trust my friends on the Common Core train will take the following not as reflecting ill wishes but as a big ol’ yellow caution flag.

I haven’t written much about Common Core to date, though I’ve grown concerned about the amount of amped-up groupthink cheerleading (fueled by a bonanza of federal and philanthropic cash). As best I’ve been able to tell, the assumption is that any sensible person is going to be a fan and the main challenge is to crank up the P.R. machine in order to silence simple-minded dolts. These thoughts were thrown into bas relief last week when I spent a couple of days helping to moderate a terrific symposium on through-course assessment in Atlanta. Sponsored by Pat Forgione’s Center for K-12 Assessment and Performance Management at ETS, the exercise brought together a slew of heavy-hitters from the world of assessment and test development. Prominent were various members of both the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the two federally-funded Common Core assessment consortia. The air was rife with technical acumen, shared by smart test developers and psychometricians.

I was struck, though, by a seeming disregard for the policy or practical impact of this whole enterprise. Four examples leap to mind (though we’ll save the fourth for tomorrow). All seem like they may well be amenable to good-faith solutions, but that requires the coterie of Common Core enthusiasts and test designers to seek input and then work to address valid concerns. In each case, it seems that the technicians engineering the assessments and related materials appear have devoted little thought to how their handiwork may clash with other concerns or undercut other improvement efforts.

First, as Catherine Gewertz noted last week, Achieve’s Mike Cohen (a key player in the Common Core effort and someone for whom I have immense respect) has pooh-poohed concerns that the consortia are moving into curricular development (with federal funds) in violation of the statutory prohibition on the U.S. Department of Education developing curricula. The attitude seemed to be that, see, these are only “curricular units, not really curricula,” and, anyway, Duncan’s Department has signed off. I’m curious whether House Republicans are going to be equally cavalier about ED’s casual attitude towards its statutory authority and its decision to wade into funding curricular development. And I think it’s worth noting how heavily this nonpartisan, state-led effort has come to rely on the funding and enthusiastic support of the Obama administration when it comes to assessments and testing.

I’ve little sense that the effort’s champions are trying to hedge their bets in case there’s a new administration in 2013 or GOP leaders turn out to have qualms about certain administration actions (such as its curious decision to casually hand $31.6 million in extra stimulus funds–RTT money, to be precise–to the two consortia for curricular design, and to do so without a bidding process). Rather, I keep hearing that because sensible people are worried about American competitiveness and because our standards and tests are a mess, folks of all stripes will ultimately fall into line. I’m not sold.

Second, in the Atlanta gathering’s very first presentation, a state official off-handedly noted that states would have to pony up tens of millions for the new technology and systems required by the envisioned tests. In my experience, most state policymakers–who have been busy slashing outlays and who are eyeballing several tough budget cycles ahead–have no idea that supporting Common Core standards means that they’re signing up for large new outlays for implementation and assessment. To help out cash-strapped states, he recommended a new federal tax, along the lines of E-Rate, to help participating states cover the costs. The notion showed, I thought, an astonishing tone-deafness to the fiscal climate in Washington and to the challenge of keeping the effort a bipartisan one.

Third, the enthusiasm of testing experts for sophisticated, text-rich assessments means it’ll be challenging to provide the technology infrastructure, school facilities, or computing devices needed to allow states to test all students in a small window. Thus, the state assessment officials seemed to voice a preference for a big window, of a month or more, during which tests would be administered. There was surprisingly little concern that some students would benefit by having the opportunity to learn the prompts or tasks in advance, if they happened to be tested later than other students in their school, district, or state.

The general attitude seemed to be that states which have used expansive windows haven’t seen notable problems so far and that, anyway, it’s all to the good if students want to do extra preparation. It struck me that no one in attendance had much thought about how this kind of design would compromise current efforts to use assessment results for accountability or teacher evaluation, or about how this would sow legitimate doubts among teachers and parents regarding fairness in a high-stakes environment.

Tomorrow, we’ll address the charter school question.

-Frederick Hess

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