Racing to National Tests?

Any national tests and standards need to be strong, substantive, and well administered.

While everyone in educatorland obsesses over the $4 billion competition among the states for Race to the Top (RTT) funding, the Education Department (ED) is readying a separate competition for less than one-tenth as much money that may nonetheless prove far more consequential for American education over the long term. I am referring to the upcoming announcement of how $350 million will be meted out to “consortia of states” to develop “common assessments” that are aligned with “common standards.”

Secretary Arne Duncan’s team is taking considerable pains to ensure that this grant competition is based on a transparent, participatory process with ample input from sundry experts, stakeholders, and the broader public. The ED has just scheduled three more public meetings to examine all of this, in addition to the seven sessions already held. The Race to the Top stewards are posing thoughtful, important questions and publicizing the answers that they’re getting.

Still and all, this competition — to be “on the street,” we’re told, by March, with awards made by September — is fraught with challenge and laden with portent. For example:

The simple fact that dollars from Washington are to be used to develop what will inevitably be termed the “national test” entangles Uncle Sam big time in what has, to date, been a non-federal process of devising “common core standards” for states to adopt on a voluntary basis. (The National Governors Association [NGA] and Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO] have spearheaded that process, using private funds.) Such entanglement carries unavoidable problems, starting with painful memories of Bill Clinton’s failed “voluntary national test” and including the widespread view that, although leaving it to individual states to develop their own standards and tests has generally proven disastrous, any multi-state alternative should be “national but not federal.” (Not that anybody is sure exactly what that means or how it would work.)

This problem is compounded (there has already been noise at congressional hearings and grumps from influential Republicans) by Duncan’s decision to use states’ participation in the “common standards” and “common assessment” processes as criteria for determining which states qualify for RTT dollars. The (obvious) concern is that, while such participation is technically voluntary, Uncle Sam is deploying potent incentives to prod states into joining. Duncan’s perspective is straightforward: He wants the U.S. to make this very important change and will use the tools at his disposal to bring it about. But that decision inexorably blurs the lines between “national” and “federal” and between “voluntary” and “mandatory.”

Further blurring lies ahead when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a.k.a. “No Child Left Behind,” gets reauthorized, for at that point Congress (and the executive branch) must decide how to factor the “common” standards and assessments into the academic performance and accountability expectations that will be baked into the next generation of eligibility for federal financial assistance. For example, will there be a “common” definition of proficiency (i.e., a uniform “cut-score,” the point on the test-score scale that separates “proficient” pupils from their need-more-work classmates) attached to the “common” assessment or will each participating state be free to set its own? If there’s a uniform cut-score, who decides where to put it?

Nobody has yet figured out the optimal long-term arrangements, in terms of organization, governance, and funding, for the new “common” assessments (or, for that matter, for the common core standards). RTT dollars will underwrite their initial development, but who will keep them updated? Who will administer the tests? Pay for them? Score them? Who will ensure test security? How will these assessments and their governance relate to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and its governing board? And much more.

These are matters that we at the Fordham Institute will revisit from time to time in the months ahead. They’re seriously important and, to the best of our knowledge, utterly unresolved.

What is of particular concern today, however, is the risk of premature closure. How the Education Department shapes its grant competition — remember, this is coming within 90 days — is bound to foreshadow the answers to these major questions about the future of American K–12 education. And the proposals actually submitted in response to that competition (many folks expect there to be just one such — another joint venture by the CCSSO and the NGA, with subcontracts to various testing outfits) will lay the foundation on which those answers must later rest.

For instance, one of the items already docketed by the ED for applicants to address is how the new common assessments will “be able to be maintained, administered, and scored at a cost that is sustainable over time.” This is a crucial issue, to be certain, and its handling carries immense implications for who will be in charge, how all of this is to be governed, managed, and financed, and how its policies will be set, not just in 2010 but also in 2020 and 2030.

The present “common core” standards project is an ad hoc coming together of two membership organizations, the CCSSO and the NGA, joined (with varying levels of commitment) by most (but not all) states, to develop the first round of K–12 standards in math and reading/writing/speaking/listening. Those are the standards with which the new assessments are meant to be aligned. Well and good. Assuming the standards are strong and substantive — the jury is still out, because the grade-12 standards are being revised and the draft K–11 have not yet been released — this is exactly what’s supposed to happen. But nobody knows how stable the CCSSO/NGA arrangement will prove over time — their leaders, priorities, and bank accounts are changeable — or whether their joint venture is the optimal governance and management for national standards and assessments over the long haul. All of that requires a system — a bona fide, durable structure, with plausible financing — and such a system does not exist today. Yet the winners of Duncan’s $350 million grant are charged not just with developing a first round of tests. They must also declare what they think such a durable system will look like and how it will function. What they submit to the Education Department this summer may prove hard to alter in the future.

Yet who is to say that the drafters of this grant competition and the proposals it will elicit are best positioned to make those structure-and-governance decisions? In a somewhat similar situation 20 years ago, when NAEP was being reinvented, Secretary William Bennett appointed a diverse, blue-ribbon commission (known as the Alexander-James Commission, after its chairman and vice chairman, Lamar Alexander and H. Thomas James) to recommend, among other things, how the “new NAEP” would operate and be governed. Many background papers, thoughtful deliberations, and meetings followed. Then the White House and Congress weighed in. The result was NAEP-as-we-know-it and the quasi-independent National Assessment Governing Board, an arrangement that hasn’t worked badly at all. But what follows from the new “common assessments” is even more consequential for the nation.

Nobody says the folks at the Education Department are working this out in secret. But have they fully fathomed the extent to which the process by which they’re about to dole out that money may shape the future of American education?

This article originally appeared on the National Review Online.

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