Top Ten Takeaways: Common Assessments (Part 2)

Following my earlier  release of #10–#6, here are my top five takeaways from my Q&A sessions with USED, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced (most important is #1).

5.   The P is for prudence

The most noticeable aspect of PARCC’s response was its the-dog-that-didn’t-bark-ness. I expected, but didn’t get, more discussion of big successes to date.

Maybe they have gobs to peacock about but chose not to, wanting later results to speak for themselves (more on that in #4). People I trust say they are on the way to getting content, alignment, and rigor right. Maybe my questions didn’t set them up to brag about that stuff?

Or maybe my reaction is just a matter of relativity. When compared to SB’s earnest, 3,000-word, front-of-the-classroom response, heck, almost anything would’ve paled.

But maybe my affection for PARCC’s board and team has softened me. A cynic might say PARCC’s limited discussion of wins is a red flag.

I don’t find anything worrisome in PARCC’s response, so I won’t speculate. So I’ll say this: PARCC’s modest response about past activities probably won’t change too many Insiders’ right-track/wrong-track vote in either direction.

4.   Confidence about the future

Reports of the consortia’s death have been greatly exaggerated! Or so they argue: Both come across as sanguine about the days ahead.

Are their tests going to be on time?

  • PARCC: We are “on-track to deliver high quality computer-based summative assessments for mathematics and ELA/literacy in grades 3–11 in the 2014–15 school year.”
  • SB: “We are on track to deliver each aspect of our assessment system on time and on budget in 2014–15.”

Are they worried about states abandoning the consortia?

  • SB: “We have no reason to expect changes among our 21 governing states.”
  • PARCC: “Our governing states tell us they are in it for the long haul.”

What about these large proportions of Education Insiders saying both consortia are on the wrong track?

  • PARCC: “The ‘education insiders’ who matter most are our state chiefs, local educators and local school systems. They tell us they are pleased with our progress, and we will keep pushing forward as planned.”
  • SB: (My paraphrase): We’re quietly doing tough, technical work; those folks aren’t assessment experts; they don’t know what we’ve been doing.

Doughty stuff, indeed. Take that, Smarick, Finn, and Education Insiders!

3.   Whither common assessments?

Secretary Duncan used to assail the “race to the bottom.” States had different standards and tests, and the tests differed in difficulty and cut scores. So a state could “improve” its comparative standing by merely easing its standards or tests.

The solution, he argued, was common standards and common assessments. Three Duncan quotes from 2010:

(Note two things about his vision: Commonality is key and state decision making on tests created huge problems—“insidious,” “no sense.”)

“The Common Core standards developed by the states, coupled with the new generation of assessments, will help put an end to the insidious practice of establishing 50 different goalposts for educational success.”
“The fact of, you know, 50 states doing this individually has made no sense whatever. You know, this is much more efficient, and both intellectually and from a financial standpoint is the right way to go.”
“For the first time, it will be possible for parents and schools leaders to assess and compare in detail how students in their state are doing compared to students in other states.”

Statements like these had me believing the Department was determined to have states participate in the consortia. In fact, one 2010 Duncan statement suggested that the consortia would be the only testing options:

“We hope these two groups will work together and learn from one another. States will have the ability to – you”ll pick which one they think will be best for them.”

This is why I asked all three respondents how important the consortia were to Common Core and why I asked the Department if it would use its authority to hold states in the consortia.

The answers I got were unexpected and significant.

The consortia surprisingly demurred. SB replied, “The Common Core will succeed or fail in the classroom.”

But the Department’s response was clear: It is not going to hold states together on assessments.

While it thinks a diffuse system of tests with varying cut scores would be “unfortunate,” the Department implied things wouldn’t be so bad.

To paraphrase its response: The public reporting requirements of ESEA would continue to ensure transparency and the ability to identify areas of weakness in states. States would work with their institutions of higher education to create tests that measure college- and career-readiness. And NAEP would still provide comparable cross-state results.

Two things stand out. First, it feels like the Department has seriously pulled back on the importance of common assessments—three years ago, different state systems “made no sense” and was “insidious.”

Second, we had ESEA reporting requirements, state-based test decisions, and NAEP results back when Secretary Duncan bemoaned the “race to the bottom.” Those things evidently didn’t stop states from scurrying downward. Why would they now?

More on that below.

But my point here is I now have a much-reduced sense of the likely place of common assessments in the Common Core era.

2.   The return of the Tenth Amendment and the loss of commonality

There were times during my reading of the responses that I thought I had inadvertently picked up a copy of the Republican Party’s platform on federalism. We’re talking about near-obsequious touting of state authority.

PARCC and SB are collections of states, so I wasn’t surprised to read it from them. But the Department’s enormous deference to states speaks volumes about the current politics of Common Core and, more importantly for our purposes here, the future of Common Core–aligned tests.

The Department’s response included the following:

  • “The states are the vital decision-makers here”
  • “States must make the right decisions for their students and communities”
  • “How states get (to great standards and assessments) is entirely up to them.”
  • “Again, states need to individually make the best decision for them based on all the relevant facts.”

I have a difficult time squaring these comments with the 2010 language (quoted above) that demeaned a state-led system of standards and assessments.

It seems pretty clear that this is simply realpolitik from the Department. At present, much of the political right sees the push for common standards and assessments as federal overreach. In power in many states, leaders on the right are now doing something about it—e.g., Indiana’s and ’s Common Core repudiations.

I’m sure many advocates for common standards and assessments now feel wistful. Would this backlash have occurred had the Department used language more deferential to states than the 2010 language cited above?

Would there be less antagonism toward Common Core and common assessments had the Department allowed them to gain support organically instead of pushing them so forcefully?

(In Rick Hess’s direct language, the Department has its “thumbprints all over the Common Core. The administration has pushed it through Race to the Top, the NCLB waivers, and their ‘ESEA blueprint’; they”ve championed it in public remarks; and they”ve patted themselves on the back for all this in the Democratic National Platform.”)

I have to wonder: If four years of policy and communications had been more modest, would the Department now be in better position to hold the consortia together and prevent a splintering on assessments?

The Department now says it’s fine with states making their own testing decisions. But based on that 2010 language, the $330 million it spent on the consortia, and its weaving of common standards and assessments into other programs, I suspect it was the Department’s wish that all or nearly all states participated in the consortia.

That now is out of the Department’s hands. Broad commonality in testing may be lost.

But the Department has not surrendered; instead, it appears to have made a clever tactical retreat. It has drawn a line in the sand, and we now know where the final battle will be fought.

1.   Rigor, alignment, and technical review

With commonality likely a lost cause, the Department will fight for rigor and alignment.

Each state can choose whatever assessment system it wants—PARCC, SB, or something else—but that system will have to be aligned with high-quality standards and measure college- and career-readiness.

The Department gave several interesting clues about how this will play out. First, it mentioned that Common Core differs from other standards, for example, in its heavy focus on writing; therefore, “assessments that truly measure the Common Core will likely look different from current state tests.”

How I read this: Test makers and states, off-the-shelf won’t cut it.

Second, the Department said it is studying how to determine whether a test actually measures college- and career-readiness.

I interpret that to mean the Department will be very interested in state cut scores.

Third, the Department reminds us that current law requires a state’s tests to be aligned with its standards, and that the Department has a peer-review system for ensuring that. In a few months, the Department says it will re-launch the now-paused peer-review system and provide additional detail “about our process and our criteria.”

Then, the kicker:

Once complete, all assessment systems, including PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and all other state assessment systems, will be required to demonstrate how they meet the requirements for technical quality, alignment, and other assessment best practices.

(Don’t consider this an idle threat. Though it was in the previous administration, the Department has withheld funds from a state for not adhering to federal rules on testing.)

So in total: The Department will be hands-off about the test systems states choose; the consortia will sink or swim based on their ability to create products states want; states may chose to go in different directions, making comparing results difficult; but the Department will use its peer-review process to ensure state systems are aligned with standards and set the proficiency bar high.

Keep your eyes peeled for information from the Department on the peer-review process and criteria. That will be the pulling back of the curtain, the big reveal, for how Common Core will be assessed.

-Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute”s Common Core Watch.

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