States Prepare Public for Common-Core Test Results
Outreach aims to temper any backlash over tests aligned with the common core
Even as states begin administering new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, they are ramping up efforts to eliminate or minimize public backlash when the scores—widely expected to be markedly lower than results from previous assessments—are released later this year.
From old-fashioned fliers designed to reach parents via students' backpacks to webinars intended for administrators and teachers, states including Illinois and New Jersey are using a diverse set of resources and partnering with various groups to prepare school communities and the general public for what's coming.
Their goal: to spread their message that the new tests are a much more accurate and complete reflection of what students know and can do than past exams, and will in turn better inform classroom instruction.
The new assessments will be far from the first time that states have reset the bar for proficiency on tests. Supporters of the new assessments also frequently point to Kentucky's relatively smooth rollout of its common-core-aligned tests in 2012 as the model for how states can ensure the long-term survival of their new standards and assessments.
But state education departments in many cases might not be used to dealing with the volume and nature of questions and criticisms they'll face in local communities and districts. Difficulties in reaching the large swath of the public that hasn't paid attention to the shifts in instruction and testing could also vex officials and other education advocates.
States are reaching out to parents and the public to get them ready for the exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards and what the tests—and their results—mean for students and public schools.
In addition to posting a “family brochure” online to provide general information about the test to students and parents, the Florida education department has also released information about testing time, and sample questions for the public to take. (Florida is not using an exam from one of the two federally funded consortia of states.)
A flier put together by the Ohio education department stresses importance of the exams to determining the performance of the state’s public schools, which schools might receive additional funds, and creating new school choice programs. It also provides information about the possible consequences if a student opts out of these mandated tests.
The state education department has posted videos in which Smarter Balanced officials, teachers, and others discuss the origins of the new assessment, how it’s intended to be different than prior exams, where people can take practice tests, and an infographic for parents comparing the tests to a medical check-up.
"They know that this is an issue that is a top priority for them," Kim Anderson, the director of benchmarking college- and career-ready standards at the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said of states' education officials. "It's nonetheless one of the most common challenges. I think that speaks to the complexity of it."
Several states, including California, Hawaii, and South Dakota, have posted answers to frequently asked questions, videos, and other documents on their state education department websites about the Smarter Balanced tests, designed by one of two federally funded consortia.
Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois board of education, said in order to reach parents successfully, those working in the classroom also have to feel confident about the new tests: "The more we can inform teachers, the more likely we are to gain some ground in terms of understanding the goals of this test and the framework of it."
Illinois has been particularly aggressive in its outreach. Among its efforts, the state has:
• Put together 52 webinars about the assessment developed by the second consortium, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which were attended by about 12,000 administrators and teachers.
• Produced a "back to school" webinar for parents that dealt with the PARCC tests, attended by a few hundred parents.
• Posted materials in January for districts to use as they see fit over the course of one or two evenings during which a district could discuss the PARCC test with community members.
In addition, the state in 2013 raised performance levels required for proficiency on its previous exam, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, as part of its preparation for the transition to PARCC.
Still, Ms. Fergus said the state "could probably do a better job" explaining exactly how the new test will differ from the old one. "It's hard to drill down as much as we like. You're not only responding to the concerns of a particular district, but then you have to communicate about those concerns to others in the media and the public," she said.
But how all that outreach plays out at the local level is "really a patchwork" with inconsistent results, said Jason Leahy, the executive director of the 5,000-member Illinois Principals Association, who noted that he was uncertain if the state K-12 bureaucracy is in the best position to educate the public about the issue. Many schools, he said, lack the time or resources in the current climate to make such efforts a priority.
"I think that schools are doing their best to try to emphasize their importance without stressing kids out too much," Mr. Leahy said. "It's just hard to do that."
Many states have recent, relevant experience with raising expectations for students on their exams that predates this first round of common-core-aligned testing.
A 2009 report from the National Center for Education Statistics said that from 2007 to 2009, seven states increased the rigor of their 4th grade reading exams, and eight did so for 8th grade reading exams. Comparatively fewer states—five—made their 4th grade math tests tougher, and three states did so for 8th grade.
New Jersey was one of the states that raised its proficiency standards in 4th grade mathematics during that period. Lucille E. Davy, the state's education commissioner from 2005 to 2010, recalled that local superintendents were initially and nervously asking, with respect to parents, "How am I going to explain this to them?"
The state made sure to work with county-based groups of superintendents about the new math-proficiency standards, Ms. Davy said. She said that while many parents might not know about the shift, state officials and others must ensure that parents are told directly what the change means for students and schools.
"A new test always engenders that kind of unease," said Ms. Davy, who is now a senior adviser at the Hunt Institute, a Durham, N.C.-based policy and advocacy group that has backed states' attempts to implement the common core.
In the end, she said, "We raised the bar, and it blew over. It wasn't the hullabaloo people thought it would be."
The Best Foot Forward website explaining PARCC to parents and others in New Jersey, backed by the state parent-teacher association and other groups, includes information on testing time and security, as well as historical score reports on prior state exams.
Rose Acerra, the president-elect of the New Jersey PTA, said the group is officially neutral about the exam itself, but is responding to parent concerns and the demand for accurate information.
"We're not saying, 'You have to take the PARCC; it's the best thing out there,' " said Ms. Acerra, who stressed that the group respects parents' concerns about the tests, including decisions to opt their children out of taking them. "We are cautiously optimistic that something like this is needed. We won't know for a year or two."
In many people's minds, however, Kentucky's transition to common-core-aligned tests in 2012 remains the best model for how to shift to the new round of exams without much of an uproar.
State schools Commissioner Terry Holliday said that to prepare for the exams and their results, he met with other state officials every two weeks to discuss outreach initiatives.
Before the education department and other common-core advocates met with local PTAs and community groups, Mr. Holliday's agency sent the substance of the state's message to district superintendents in advance, a move he said local officials particularly appreciated. And his department, in turn, would receive feedback from those meetings from the Prichard Committee, a nonprofit advocacy group in Lexington that aided the department's communications efforts.
"The key conversation was between teachers and parents when the test scores were delivered," Mr. Holliday said.
While the department did use social media for some of its outreach, he added, it paled in comparison to the importance of those face-to-face, community-based conversations: "You can't explain it in a tweet; 140 characters [are] not enough to give clear talking points."
Mr. Holliday estimated that he's had one-on-one discussions about Kentucky's outreach strategy with about half the state education chiefs. The Council of Chief State School Officers, he said, has also convened meetings of communications personnel in state departments to discuss such work.
A Question of Trust
As part of a shift in how state test scores are communicated to the public, the Smarter Balanced consortium is also releasing sample score reports for individual students intended for parents as well as teachers. (States can use or disregard the templates as they wish.) The idea behind sharing the templates is to illustrate how the actual reports will include both scores and whether students have met expectations in various skills, such as reasoning or problem-solving on the math exam.
"The biggest issue we're going to face are parents whose students were proficient [on the previous exams] and now they may not be," said Luci Willits, the deputy executive director of Smarter Balanced.
But successful undertakings in places like Kentucky are based on years of cooperation between state officials, business leaders, and local PTAs, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that favors a market-based approach to education. That reflects an unusual action by a state to foster a culture of support around the common core and aligned tests, he said.
"If [states] don't already have these kinds of relationships and those kinds of civic networks, it's going to be hard to put together between now and the summer," said Mr. Hess, who also writes an opinion blog for edweek.org.
If Kentucky is the role model for supporters of the new tests, New York's experience reveals what can happen when such outreach efforts meet resistance or outright hostility.
Since New York unveiled new English/language arts and math tests aligned to the common core in 2013, teachers' unions and some education advocates have waged political warfare against the assessments and tied them to broader criticisms of the common core and evaluation policies in the Empire State. (So far, despite a testing opt-out movement in New York that has also garnered news-media attention, state leaders haven't seriously considered dropping the standards or tests.)
Still, Mr. Hess expressed skepticism that arguments from psychometricians and policy officials would necessarily carry the day in the face of pushback from parents or vacillation by local educators and officials.
"There is no way to settle the issue," he said. "It's just, who do you trust more?"
Vol. 34, Issue 24, Pages 1, 26Published in Print: March 18, 2015, as Awaiting Test Scores, States Work to Manage Expectations