Assessment Opinion

Common-Core Test Results: A Reflection of Convoluted Policy

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 01, 2015 6 min read
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The common-core assessment strategy was designed to compare student success across the nation in relation to the acquisition of knowledge and skills in the common-core standards. Tests were designed, purportedly, to reflect where the students (and teachers) stand and to allow valid comparisons. The results are in and the lower than usual results were no surprise to most educators. But, the comparison objective was also not achieved due to capacities and choices of states and districts.

It is no secret that there was an implementation timeline that set the course for a very bumpy road. Along with the new standards came new assessments, teacher and principal evaluations, and in many states, the requirement of computer-based testing.

The Carnegie Credit as a Comparison
In the early 1900’s, standardizing public education was also on the policy table. Then, rather than standards of knowledge and skills, the focus was on a standard of time for both secondary and post-secondary programs. The Carnegie Foundation tied the retirement system for college professors to collegiate utilization of the Carnegie unit by for college admission and secondary education. The adoption and standardization happened very quickly. Within the first decade of the twentieth century, the Carnegie Unit1 became the standard for secondary schools and colleges. A century later we find policy makers using the well-entrenched strategy: set a new standard, make it happen fast, tie it to funding. The impact has held for a century.

However, according to a recent survey conducted by the Carnegie Foundation, the use of the Carnegie Unit2 , tying student mastery of a subject to seat time, is being called into question by some. With the advent of computers, digital information accessibility, resources like MOOC’s, YouTube, and Khan Academy, students do have access to information previously tied to a teacher in a classroom. Mastery of concepts taught in classrooms can be hastened by simply accessing the Internet. And, there have always been some students who learn faster than others. So it appears increasingly unfair to hold credit to the tether of time, rather than one’s ability to demonstrate competence.

The Carnegie Credit and the common core have a common intent: to establish a national measure for the education of all students, ensuring that every student in the country is given a similar opportunity to receive the same education.

Leaders, Step Forward
Educational leadership calls for both knowledge and wisdom. Both are needed now, it seems, more than ever. As long as political executives, legislatures and regulatory agencies take the lead, we have little choice but to comply. Ahead may be another century of a well-motivated but badly formed policy initiative which becomes our way of life. Then, we had little influence in designing it. Do we now?

There is long history and strong support for local control in education. Locally, we do have at least some influence. While the testing industry giants continue to flounder in the attempt to develop assessments that adequately measure the acquisition of the common-core standards, schools and the communities they serve can take a bold step forward in the understanding of the debate.

Dismissing “grades” on one test or another can and will send a confusing message, undermining our credibility perhaps. But, accompanied by clear language descriptions of the issues, understanding across the district and community can be garnered. We are a business in the process of change and our work is happening in the public eye. This is a progress report, not a final exam for anyone.

According to an Associated Press article

Results for some of the states that participated in common-core-aligned testing for the first time this spring are out, with overall scores higher than expected though still below what many parents may be accustomed to seeing.

The markers are new and they don’t align with the ones used previously. It can even be argued that the old markers didn’t measure what we believed was measured. But, they relate to new standards and may not even be measuring those effectively.

The choice point for leaders is here. How the community of teachers and parents, businesses and community members view this confusing landscape can be in our hands. District leaders educate the governing board and empower building leaders while establishing the context of the national issue in the local community. Building leaders educate, support and encourage teachers and parents to join together in a dialogue about the issues. It is on a local level that values lead the conversation.

Unless we are present in the conversation, balancing the local reality and the national context, it won’t happen. No on else is positioned to do it the way we are. Without the questions, insights and solutions leaders bring, our schools might wind up in another century long limiting construct like the Carnegie Credit. The big questions remain:

  • How do we insure that all children across the country receive an education and are held to the same standard that prepares them equally well to be college and career ready?
  • How do we insure that the social/emotional skills required for the 21st century graduate are not pushed aside in the name of standardized learning and testing?

The local questions remain:

  • How can we insure that a quality education for ALL students is provided here with our limited resources and student population?
  • Can we lead our community to agree that the results of the new tests are one and only one of the indicators of our progress?

If we don’t begin to take these steps and answer these questions, it might be 2115 before we begin to see some movement away from what is no longer working. We can comply and we can speak up and speak out, not only in defiance or opposition, but with a vision articulated and clear enough for others to support.


1The Carnegie unit came into widespread use during a time when efforts were being made across the country to standardize public education and ensure that schools applied more uniform, consistent, and effective teaching methods and learning expectations when educating students. Still, the 120-hour Carnegie unit did not achieve widespread adoption by schools and colleges until the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which was established in 1906, began to provide retirement pensions for university professors--with the stipulation that participating universities must adopt the Carnegie-unit system. Today, the retirement fund is known as TIAA-CREF. As a result of this decision, by 1910 nearly all the colleges and secondary schools in the United States were using the 120-hour standard to award course credits and determine progress toward graduation.

2Only 10 states and the District of Columbia require districts to use time-based credits. Thirty-three states allow districts to replace time-based credit with other measures. Of these, 29 are free to define credit completely on their own and four must get state approval to use measures other than time. Six states permit districts to use non-time-based credits only for special groups of students or specific programs. New Hampshire is the only state that requires districts to use competency-based credits. There, as in many other states where time-based credits aren’t required, competency-based credit can be issued for learning that takes place outside of the school building--in internships, independent studies, summer jobs, and beyond. (Carnegie Foundation)

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.