Published Online: August 2, 2013
Published in Print: August 2, 2013, as Common Tests in Cross Hairs
Updated: August 7, 2013
Includes correction(s): August 7, 2013

Tests Linked to Common Core in Critics' Cross Hairs

Assessments cast as weak link

Having failed to persuade lawmakers in any state to repeal the Common Core State Standards outright, opponents are training their fire on the assessments being developed to go with the standards and due to be rolled out for the 2014-15 school year.

They’re using as ammunition concerns about costs and the technology required for those tests, in addition to general political opposition to the common core. A few states—including Georgia, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania—have already chosen to limit or end their participation in the assessments under development by two federally funded consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Legislators in Kansas, where a common-core repeal bill failed this year, may ultimately allow districts to pick their own assessments instead of requiring them to use what will be provided by Smarter Balanced, said Mark Tallman, an associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

“I think there’s a real good chance the tests could be targeted,” he said.

The common assessments are intended to allow student performance to be compared across several states based on broad and high-quality standards, specifically the common core. They are also intended to provide much better insight into students’ knowledge than previous tests under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Without common assessments to assess students on the standards and compare states’ performance, the common core will enter “no-man’s land,” said Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which opposes the new standards and has been helping state-level political groups advocate against them.

“People will do whatever the hell they want,” Mr. Stergios said of states deciding not to use the new assessments. “It means, ‘We’re not doing common core.’ ”

But officials from the testing consortia say it’s wrong to believe that support for common assessments is crumbling.

Despite recent departures from PARCC, Mitchell D. Chester, the Massachusetts K-12 commissioner and the chairman of the consortium’s governing board, said he never believed every state that had joined the consortium would stay. He sees it as evidence of strength that 14 states and the District of Columbia have committed to field-testing PARCC’s assessment in 2014.

“Each state has a very particular context for its testing program, how much is being spent, how it’s used,” he said.

Support for the common standards themselves isn’t necessarily wavering in state education departments. The Center on Education Policy, based at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, reported last month that deputy state school superintendents in 37 states said it was “not likely” their state would drop out of or limit involvement in the common core.

But the consortia’s assessments are a key “linchpin” for the standards, said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the CEP, even though “there are other products out there that can fill the gap,” she noted, referring to testing materials produced by ACT Inc. and others.

Financial Concerns

Cost factors come in to play at a time when the common standards themselves face vocal, grassroots opposition from conservative activists in particular.

Georgia announced its withdrawal from PARCC on July 22, after a recent uptick in anti-common-core activity in the state—the same day PARCC released cost estimates of $29.50 per student for its summative math and English/language arts tests. That figure means that nearly half of PARCC states would pay more for the tests they use for federal accountability.

Georgia schools Superintendent John Barge, a Republican, voiced concern about the potential per-student costs and whether lawmakers in his state would sign off on significant spending increases required to pay for the consortium’s test.

The previous week, on July 17, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, both Republicans, wrote in a letterRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader to then-Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett that the state should drop out of PARCC over concerns about costs and other reasons. Mr. Bennett resigned from that post last week in a controversy involving grade-changes for a charter school while he was the Indiana schools chief.

Costs are likely to be an issue even in states like California where the standards themselves enjoy officials’ broad support, said Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education and a standards supporter. California, a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, is projected to see an increase in per-student assessment costs, as would about a third of that consortium’s members.

“If they see a big jump in the testing budget, that’s going to cause problems in the legislature, not because of the tea party,” he said.

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Technology a Factor

Georgia and Oklahoma have also cited concerns about their technological capacity for new assessment regimes as a major reason they have decided not to use PARCC tests.

Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Weatherford, the Florida lawmakers, wrote that they were worried about Florida’s ability to add enough computers to satisfy PARCC's assessments. The consortium calls for a minimum student-to-computer ratioRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader of 2:1 for schools with three tested grades.

And in a survey last year of technology in Florida schools, the state education department estimated that 1,616 schools would need new “high-density wireless” systems, and 67 districts would have to get upgraded broadband to prepare for PARCC.

Even in California, a Smarter Balanced member that has earmarked $1.25 billion over the next two years specifically for districts to implement the common core, the targeted money is also intended for textbooks and professional development, not just new K-12 technology.

New hardware and wireless capabilities are not the only issues. Brandt Redd, the chief technology officer of Smarter Balanced, said the consortium is trying to help school systems figure out what to do when Microsoft’s support for its XP operating system, used by a vast number of districts, ends in April.

Still, Mr. Redd said, “We have designed the assessments not to be terribly demanding on devices.” He noted that they will require only a 10-inch screen, for example.

Both Mr. Chester and Mr. Redd highlighted the federal government’s role in providing more financial support for school technology in the near future. The Federal Communications Commission released a plan late last month to overhaul the E-rate program that K-12 advocates hope will improve connectivity and cost-effective purchasing, following President Barack Obama’s ConnectED Initiative unveiled in June.

Both also acknowledged, however, that in 2014-15, not all states will have yet reached their technological goals for common-core tests.

Comparability Issue

As of late last week, PARCC officially had 18 member states and the District of Columbia, down from 26 states when it won the federal money. Smarter Balanced has 24 states. (Until recently, some states belonged to both.)

At some point, a decline in membership could raise concerns about the ability to look at performance across the board for states and districts, although opinions about the value of this comparability, given the use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, are divided.

Mr. Rothman said that while comparing nonconsortia and consortia tests would be “very difficult,” comparison hasn’t mattered much to the four states that have used the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, for example.

Another concern is whether there will be large differences between the consortia’ tests and common-core tests from other organizations, such as ACT’s (which Alabama plans to use), in terms of students’ learning, their readiness for college and career, and teachers.

As an analogy, Mr. Bennett, before resigning his post, argued that while the SAT and ACT are different tests, college-admissions officers feel comfortable using both. He is an ardent common-core supporter.

But Daniel Koretz, a professor at the Harvard Graduation School of Education, stressed that teachers whose students are facing different tests will approach the common core in correspondingly different ways.

“Consortium tests don’t just measure what students know. ... They’re designed to push instruction in a certain way,” he said.

Vol. 32, Issue 37, Pages 1,20

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story included an incorrect figure for PARCC's estimated cost per student for its summative math and English/language arts tests.

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