Common-Core Field Tests Gain Foothold in States

By Michele McNeil — March 04, 2014 4 min read
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As the U.S. Department of Education continues to give states more assessment flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, the number of states that plan to use common-core-aligned field tests in all, or nearly all, of their schools continues to grow.

Late last month, Idaho won a waiver from the Education Department to allow all of its schools to field test new common-core-aligned assessments this spring. Although the department previously has approved more than a dozen of these so-called “double testing” waivers, Idaho is only the second state, in addition to Montana, to win approval to give the field test in all of its schools. These waivers mean no state tests will be given in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as the original NCLB required.

By authorizing the use of field tests in all schools, these two states, and any that follow, will not be required by federal officials to report any data to teachers, administrators, and parents on how students are performing—a hallmark of the NCLB law. As of press time last week, an application was still pending before the department from California, which is seeking to ditch its state tests entirely in favor of common-core-aligned field tests designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Several other states have been granted approval to give these in almost all of their schools: Connecticut, South Dakota, and Maryland.

For accountability hawks, a one-year delay for states that won’t post any student-performance data is bigger than it seems—it’s a break in a student’s growth trend line, said Sandy Kress, an Austin, Texas, lawyer and former education aide to President George W. Bush who helped write the NCLB law. Student-growth models often use multiple years of test data to gauge how students are gaining, performance-wise. So breaking the trend line means that a new baseline won’t be established until the new common-core tests are given in the spring of 2015, and growth couldn’t be determined for another year or two after that. And those growth models are often factored into state accountability systems.

“The loss of the year is damaging,” Mr. Kress said. “To have a year off means that you are thrown off path in doing growth analysis for everyone. You could be putting off accountability for two, three, or even four years.”

Offering Leeway

Last year, the Education Department offered states flexibility so schools wouldn’t have to give the same students new common-core-aligned field tests, and their existing state tests. Sixteen states are pursuing this double-testing flexibility; the rest are managing the transition without interrupting accountability or student-performance trend lines.

When the details of the new federal testing waivers were announced, all of the Education Department’s guidance envisioned that students would take a mix of field tests and state tests. That would ensure at least some data—from the state tests—were still reported so educators and parents could know how their students are doing.

Field tests won’t produce any usable data on student performance because they are experimental by design and used to “test the tests” to make sure they are, among other things, asking the right questions.

However, reporting data, even during field testing, has been important to the department. In September, regarding the California situation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Raising standards to better prepare students for college and careers is absolutely the right thing to do, but letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools’ performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition.”

The department has quietly allowed Idaho and Montana to do just that. However, accountability designations in place this school year will continue into next school year, so any interventions, sanctions, or improvement efforts are supposed to carry over for an extra year.

“This is a solid plan that will allow Idaho to accomplish its three-year transition to a new assessment,” Idaho education department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said, adding that the department hosted meetings with educators in the spring of 2013 to discuss the transition to the common core. “Among the things we learned: Educators did not want to double-test, and teachers did not want to administer an assessment that was no longer aligned to the standards.”

California Seeks Flexibility

California may join Idaho on the short list of states with blanket testing waivers. It submitted a plan late last year to the Education Department that calls for giving some version of the field test to 95 percent of students in tested grades, in both math and reading. No state tests would be given.

The state’s civil rights groups have said they are alarmed that there would be no usable performance data for 6 million students, including large numbers of English-learners. And so, these groups have called for the department to require some sort of data reporting even if the state only administers field tests.

Neither Idaho’s nor Montana’s waiver have conditions that require them to do additional data reporting on student performance.

“The issue is, how do you transition from one set of standards to a new one without losing too much continuity in terms of accountability and tracking trends?” said Keith Rust, the director of statistical operations at Westat, a Rockville, Md.-based research firm that works on, among many other projects, the National Assessment for Education Progress.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Common-Core-Aligned Field Tests Gain Foothold in States


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