Losing the Ability to Compare Academic Performance Across States

Our friend and colleague Mike Petrilli is right about many things, but he’s wrong to dismiss solid interstate comparisons of academic performance as a “nice to have,” not a “must-have.” He acknowledges that the Common Core standards have largely failed to usher in an era of timely, valid, and informative comparisons, but then he says, in effect, never mind, we still have NAEP, PISA, and other measures by which to know how one state is doing academically versus another and in comparison with the country as a whole.

It is indeed a good thing that we have those other measures because it’s true that the Common Core era has failed to deliver on what many of us saw as one of its most valuable and important features: a platinum meter stick to be used to measure, monitor, and compare student achievement, not just between states but also among districts, individual schools, even individual classrooms and children. That’s how the superintendent in Springfield, Illinois, could determine how his schools—even just his fifth-graders—compare with their counterparts in Springfield, Oregon, Springfield, Ohio, and Springfield, Massachusetts, both in absolute achievement and in academic growth trajectories in math and English. That’s how a principal or teacher could see how her seventh-graders are doing vis-à-vis the rest of the state, the country, even the world. That’s how the governor of Tennessee can compare his state’s high-school students with their counterparts in Wisconsin or Kentucky.

And, to be clear, these comparisons are valuable, not merely – not even mostly – for accountability purposes.  Teaching remains in the Dark Ages of research and practice precisely because of the lack of comparability at the school and classroom level.  Education research, policy, and practice are “siloed” at present, speaking different languages. Comparability would enable serious researchers to make fine-grained, practice-based distinctions at the classroom level, enabling the field to observe, define, and disseminate effective practices among various subsets of students.  This could help teaching become more of a profession, and less dependent on philosophy and preference.  Ultimately comparability is also how a parent could determine how her ninth-grader is faring in comparison with her peers elsewhere in the nation—and other nations.

NAEP and PISA and the other international metrics can’t do that. They report only at the national and, sometimes, the state level (and, in the case of NAEP, a handful of big cities) and only in certain grades. (For NAEP, it’s really just fourth and eighth, as twelfth grade NAEP results are reported just for the country as a whole. For PISA—if the state participates at all—it’s just fifteen-year-olds. For TIMSS and PIRLS, it’s just grades four and eight and, again, only if the state takes part.)

In many states, the new Common Core-aligned tests of reading and math that have recently reported student and school results from 2014-15 have set a higher bar than ever before, and—if accurately and honestly reported to parents—should go a long way to deflating the “proficiency illusion” under which many schools have sheltered. How that will play out remains to be seen. There’s already reason to worry about the candor and clarity with which parents are—or more likely aren’t—being informed whether their kids are really “on track” for “college and career” and we don’t know whether the bleak results and educator upset that’s apt to follow will cow policy makers into reinstating the illusion.

Even if states stick to their high bars, however, there’s good reason to worry about inter-state comparability.  The promise of the Common Core included not just multi-state standards but also multi-state assessments, assessments in more-or-less every grade with results at every level of the K-12 system: The child (though not by name, except to parents and teachers), the school (and, if desired, individual classrooms and, by implication, teachers), the district, the state, and the nation, with crosswalks (in pertinent grades) to international measures as well as to NAEP, the primary external “auditor” of state and national achievement.

Some of that is indeed happening, but it only works when states use the same tests as well as the same standards. And as Mike’s post makes clear, most are not. Just twenty-one of them are currently still participating in the two assessment “consortia.” We hope they remain steadfast. But bellwether Massachusetts has just opted to develop its own version of the PARCC assessment and all states face brand-new federally-granted flexibility on the accountability front. Depending on how they handle it,  the prospects of comparability could dim further. In retrospect, the country might have been better served with 50 different sets of standards and a single test, rather than a single set of standards and a patchwork of assessments.

This isn’t just a loss for policy wonks, as Mike suggests. It’s an enormous loss for parents, educators, and policymakers throughout the land. We agree with Mike that the Common Core has brought other gains to American K-12 education, gains that we hope to see reverberate across society in a dozen ways. It certainly isn’t dead. But it’s shed a lot of blood on the altar of political expediency.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Robert Pondiscio

This post originally appeared on Common Core Watch.

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