Special Report

Common Core at Four: Sizing Up the Enterprise

By Catherine Gewertz — April 21, 2014 7 min read
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The Common Core State Standards have been reshaping the American education landscape for four years, leaving their mark on curriculum and instruction, professional development, teacher evaluation, the business of publishing, and the way tests are designed.

Even as those touchpoints of schooling shift with the new standards, another key milestone hovers. A year from now, all but a handful of states will do something they’ve never done before—give exams based on one shared set of standards. In fact, more than three dozen of those states will use two shared sets of assessments, too.

It’s an unprecedented level of change in a K-12 system that has long prized its ability to make curriculum and testing decisions at the state and local levels.

As Education Week explores in this special report, however, the initial vision for the standards—and for aligned assessments—is now bumping up against reality on the ground in states, school districts, and local communities.

For one, a perceived attack on local decisionmaking has sparked a backlash in a number of states and at opposite points in the political spectrum. Questions about the role of the federal government in incentivizing states to adopt the standards, and in funding the design of the tests, have led to a spate of bills in state legislatures calling for the slowdown or abandonment of common-core implementation, or withdrawal from the state assessment consortia designing aligned tests.

Although none of the bills that would pull states out of the common core so far has garnered enough support to become law—with the notable exception of one in Indiana—a half-dozen states in recent months have pulled out of the coalitions developing common tests: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Claims of Alignment

While conservatives have long been troubled by the U.S. Department of Education’s role in the standards adoption and test development, a wave of opposition on the left has arisen more recently. Both national teachers’ unions blasted what they perceived as the rushed implementation of curriculum and teacher-evaluation programs linked to the common core, and parents and other activists have seized on the fast timetable for new curricula and tests to express their opposition to the overuse of high-stakes standardized testing in general, pulling their children out of common-core field tests by the thousands.

Standards Adoption

Between February 2010 and November 2011, nearly all states adopted the common-core standards. By 2013, some states were debating whether to keep them, but as of mid-April 2014, only one state, Indiana, had formally reversed its adoption.


SOURCE: Education Week

It’s also clear that the standards are having a big influence on state and local spending, though not always in ways that are easy to break down in K-12 budgets.

For instance, many states and districts are moving forward with plans to spend a lot of money on curricula, assessments, professional development, and other products and services that they say will help them meet the demands of the common-core standards and tests.

But as this special report points out, it’s not clear how much of that spending is a direct result of those standards and tests, and how much would have occurred in the natural cycle of schools updating pillars of teaching and learning.

The fear of not being device-ready for the 2015 common assessments, however, does appear to be fueling some large-scale hardware purchases. And commercial and open-source vendors are churning out products they claim are “aligned” with the new standards.

That outpouring has overwhelmed districts as they try to sort the wheat from the chaff among all the new—or in some cases perhaps, only minimally tweaked—curricular offerings. The experiences of local education systems in Long Beach, Calif., and Orange County, Fla., offertwo distinct pathways to building common-core curriculum. Orange County found a set of materials from a commercial publisher that it believes meets its needs, while Long Beach, disillusioned with publishers’ offerings and on a tight budget, decided to write its own.

Testing Landscape

Although a vast majority of states have adopted the common core, they won’t all be using the same assessments to gauge learning tied to those standards. Many will use tests developed by the PARCC or Smarter Balanced consortium; others will go their own way.


SOURCE: Education Week

The two state consortia designing new tests for the standards—with the help of $360 million in federal aid—have sought to fundamentally reshape the way learning is assessed. And yet, over time they have scaled back some of their original testing plans in the face of political, economic, and technical constraints.

Those realities have led consortium officials—who once made lofty promises about the revolutionary nature of their forthcoming tests—to represent them more humbly as “version 1.0" of assessments that are a vast improvement over what most states currently use, and will keep getting better in the coming years.

Compromises to Keep Support

With the forthcoming PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests, the assessment landscape has indeed changed dramatically. Next year, most children across the country will take tests on computers. Those in Smarter Balanced states will take tests that adapt to their skill level, a marked transformation from what most states do now. Children in all the consortia states will experience one or more complex, lengthy performance tasks, an approach unheard of now in nearly every state. Both tests will eliminate or reduce the use of commissioned reading passages, a move the consortia believe will offer more engaging, interesting texts to respond to when students take their exams.

Testing the Tests

The two state consortia that are designing tests for the Common Core State Standards began field-testing their assessments in March 2014.


SOURCES: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers; Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

At the same time, the two consortia traded away key—and ambitious—aims in order to retain states’ support. Smarter Balanced reduced the number of performance tasks it wanted to offer, shortening its test. PARCC scaled back its plan to scatter several tests across the year.

Some educators who worked on the assessments, crestfallen at such compromises, worry that the final tests will not be as instructionally valuable to teachers and students. Others worry that the nonsummative aspects of the consortia’s work—a range of formative strategies, diagnostic tests, instructional tools, and other resources—are being shortchanged in the all-important push to have the summative tests ready by spring 2015, as the Department of Education required when it awarded the grants.

Difficult tradeoffs are also evident in the approaches PARCC and Smarter Balanced are taking to provide testing accommodations for children learning English and those with disabilities. Experts say the new tests hold the potential to include more special-needs children in the testing experience in a more meaningful way, with English glossaries, zooming and highlighting capabilities, and other supports embedded directly into the computer platform. Indeed, many of those features will be available to all students to improve the assessment experience.

But the differences between how the two consortia are pursuing supports like English-language translations and read-alouds mean that students in PARCC states will have significantly different experiences of testing from those in Smarter Balanced states. The consortia’s accommodations, relying heavily on technology, have also led some educators to worry that tech-savvy children could do better on the test than those less comfortable with technology, exacerbating a long-standing, socioeconomic digital divide.

Testing Timeline

Field-testing is an important step in designing the federally funded assessments for the common core, but other key milestones lie ahead as the two main state consortia complete their suites of tests and tools.


SOURCES: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers; Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

While the reach of the common standards has been broad, not everything has yielded to the pressure to reflect the new expectations. As Education Week looks at the state of play on the common core in 2014, this special report finds that teacher-preparation programs have by and large been playing catch-up in readying their students to teach the new standards. In fact, some in the teacher education field are reluctant to embed the common core in their preparation programs.

At the heart of such resistance is a philosophical question: Why should colleges of education devote themselves to preparing their students for a specific set of standards when they view their purpose as broader and higher than that? Additionally, there are institutional barriers. Traditionally, course content at colleges of education is tightly controlled by instructors, and the decentralized nature of the teacher-preparation world makes it difficult to infuse the system with a shared, program-specific aim, such as the common core.

Whatever one’s perspective on the grand experiment with common standards now unfolding across states, the initiative is proving a powerful driver of change in American education. Whether that change is for the better will surely be the subject of ongoing and intense debate. But the coming year may prove pivotal in writing the history of that change, as four years of common-core preparation and implementation are put to the test by the rollout of aligned assessments—and the first set of national results for students.

Testing Timeline

Field-testing is an important step in designing the federally funded assessments for the common core, but other key milestones lie ahead as the two main state consortia complete their suites of tests and tools.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Sizing Up a Four-Year Experiment


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