State Political Rifts Sap Support for Common-Core Tests

Assessments drawing fire as target in standards fight

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While nearly every state that adopted the Common Core State Standards appears to be sticking with that commitment, political pressure is fragmenting the environment for tests aligned with the common core and the two federally funded assessment consortia producing them.

The most recent tally shows that 13 states do not belong to either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. At the peak in 2010, PARCC claimed the membership of 26 states, and Smarter Balanced had 31. Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia are sticking with PARCC, and 22 are in Smarter Balanced.

And in some cases, states appear to be willing to sacrifice the tests to keep the standards themselves. For example, a bill in Tennessee that's heading to Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, would stop the administration of the PARCC test for the 2014-15 school year and require the state to solicit new test proposals after that. The legislation has been viewed in Tennessee as a compromise following a push by some conservative lawmakers to halt the common core's implementation.

Recent fights over the consortia's common-core tests have also taken place in public in Louisiana and South Carolina. The latter state left Smarter Balanced on April 14, after a dispute between state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais and the state board of education.

Mick Zais, South Carolina schools’ chief, favors testing flexibility.
Mick Zais, South Carolina schools’ chief, favors testing flexibility.
—Jeffrey Collins/AP

In Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has expressed a desire to leave the PARCC consortium. But John White, the state schools' chief, said the governor's position threatens to subvert the state's intent for how the tests will be used: "We have a plan that is a long-term, 12-year plan. It was vetted through months of public discourse," Mr. White said.

At the same time, testing providers such as ACT and the American Institutes for Research threaten to cut into the market share of the two consortia by offering their own alternative tests, which could affect both the number of students they reach and the cost efficiencies for remaining consortia members. (However, PARCC announced last week that it was lowering the price of its assessments per student from $29.50 to, at most, $24.)

"I don't think it's ideal," said Jeff Gagne, the director of education policies at the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based policy and research group, about the uncertain common-core testing environment. "The problem is that you can't [disentangle] politics and policy. To think you can is foolhardy."

<b>Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal</b> would drop out of the PARCC testing group.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would drop out of the PARCC testing group.
—Melinda Deslatte/AP

'Speed Bump' or Setback?

Tennessee offers a good example of the politics surrounding the common-core tests. The state has won praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and analysts for how it has prepared schools and teachers for both the common core and the PARCC assessments.

But that backdrop didn't stop the Tennessee General Assembly, which is controlled by Republicans, from putting the state on the path to delaying and potentially dropping the tests, assuming Gov. Haslam, a common-core supporter, signs the bill. (The bill could also become law without his signature.) The Tennessee House previously had approved a bill to delay further use of the standards.

Common-core supporters in the state are putting a positive spin on the situation. The measure passed by the legislature is a "reaffirmation from the General Assembly that rigorous academic standards for students in Tennessee are important," said David Mansouri, the executive vice president of the Nashville-based State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a nonprofit group that supports the common core. He called any delay of PARCC testing a mere "speed bump," adding that a variety of policy changes have contributed to the state's recent run of success on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

John White, Louisiana state schools chief, opposes the governor’s position.
John White, Louisiana state schools chief, opposes the governor’s position.
—Melinda Deslatte/AP

Mr. Mansouri also said that the PARCC tests and the state's own assessment program under the No Child Left Behind Act are "not the only way to know how students are doing."

But both Kevin Huffman, the state's education commissioner, and Mr. Mansouri stridently oppose any halt to the use of teacher evaluations informed in part by scores from whatever test is used, a practice the Tennessee Education Association is suing to stop.

Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education, who has studied the use of common-core-aligned tests, said that while the sky won't fall in Tennessee if it goes without the consortia test for a year, he is skeptical that vendors could truly match the consortia's work.

"It really does matter what that test looks like in terms of format and content and alignment and quality," Mr. Polikoff said.

Process and a Pawn

In South Carolina, Barry Bolen, the chairman of the state school board, argued that he would be satisfied with dropping the Smarter Balanced tests if the state could keep the common core.

Barry Bolen, S.C. board chairman, backs the common core standards.
Barry Bolen, S.C. board chairman, backs the common core standards.
—Jeffrey Collins/AP

In early April, the state board and Mr. Zais engaged in a tussle over the standards.

Mr. Zais' department told school districts April 3 to halt field-testing on the common-core-aligned assessments, only to have the board reaffirm its commitment to the tests in an April 9 vote.

Saying that the state should enter a competitive marketplace for common-core tests, Mr. Zais then announced April 14 he was unilaterally withdrawing the state from the Smarter Balanced consortium to seek a new test, an action that Mr. Bolen has contested.

Smarter Balanced tests became a pawn in a fight led by common-core opponents like Mr. Zais, a Republican, and GOP state lawmakers responding to political pressure from tea party activists, Mr. Bolen argued.

The fight itself, however, left teachers and schools up in the air about which direction their state would head, he said, without opponents to Smarter Balanced presenting distinct alternatives.

"This isn't really about the Smarter Balanced. This is about the process and the tactics and the way this whole thing has gone down," Mr. Bolen said.

An Issue of Commonality

Even among the remaining members of both consortia, some states won't use PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests for all the relevant grade levels. Wisconsin, for example, will only use Smarter Balanced tests in grades 3-8, while relying on ACT tests in high school. Missouri plans to use Smarter Balanced only for the 5th and 8th grades.

Regardless of which states will use certain tests for certain grades, the broad use of consortia tests would not in any way ensure strong implementation of the common core itself, or that good curricula and resources will be developed to build a bridge for students between the standards and the tests, said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the 3 million-member National Education Association.

"We don't need a high-stakes standardized test to do that," he said.

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In contrast to Mr. Van Roekel's argument, a proliferation of common-core assessments in states, strongly aligned or not, creates an "uncommonness" that pushes the country closer to the era of No Child Left Behind, with more standards and tests in use by states, said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy."If we wind up with multiple tests, and those tests are reporting different percentages of kids proficient, ... it seems to me that's a huge blow to the common-core advocates' original argument," he said. "Tests are always most popular before they are given."

Jacqueline King, a spokeswoman for Smarter Balanced, said that despite the political fervor, the consortium's focus on field-testing—with 2 million students so far this spring—combined with broad, positive feedback from teachers, has given the testing group confidence.

"We have to be vigilant, and we are. We're in constant communication with our states, because this is just a political reality that we're living in," Ms. King said.

Vol. 33, Issue 30, Pages 27, 30

Published in Print: May 7, 2014, as State Political Rifts Sap Support for Common-Core Tests
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