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Standards Opinion

Common Core & the High-Stakes “Hiatus”

By Rick Hess — May 23, 2013 3 min read
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In the past month or two, serious voices have called for a “hiatus” in high-stakes testing as new assessments are phased in over the next few years. The most notable champions of a hiatus have been Montgomery County superintendent Josh Starr and AFT president Randi Weingarten. They’ve found sympathy in some perhaps surprising quarters, such as with Education Trust honcho Kati Haycock.

The “hiatus” idea has been met with the withering critiques you’d expect from proponents of gap-closing accountability. On Tuesday, Chiefs for Change released a strongly worded letter flatly rejecting the idea. They declared, “Holding our schools accountable for the progress of our students is the only way we will transform education, remain internationally competitive and close achievement gaps.” Among other things, the “no-hiatus” crowd is concerned that, if states once start to retreat from NCLB-style accountability systems, it’ll be tough to get those systems back in place.

The no-hiatus camp seems to see that as a simple question, substantively and politically. I think they’re dead wrong. I see a serious, thorny question that should elicit mixed feelings. If pushed to pick a side, though, I currently find myself closer to the Starr/Weingarten camp than to the Chiefs. Why? Three reasons, mainly:

First, substantively, while today’s accountability systems have brought focus and much-needed attention to kids who had previously been overlooked, they’ve also come with some real costs. They’ve narrowed the scope of instruction and limited the scope of our ambition. Given the limited benefits, real costs, and horrific popular legacy of NCLB-style accountability, a high-stakes hiatus is not necessarily the calamity that the Chiefs envision. I’ve mixed feelings but would certainly be okay with some states choosing that path.

Second, there’s a serious question of fairness and credibility. A (conservative, pro-accountability) state leader was recalling recently that, when his state first embraced NCLB-style accountability, it took two years for parents and educators to get comfortable with the tests. You can tell a similar tale about many places. And that was when results had little import for individual teachers. Today, states are rushing to adopt Race to the Top-style test-based teacher evaluation even as they’re making drastic changes to the machinery that underlies those systems. After all, right now, today, Common Core states are using state assessments that no longer reflect the standards that teachers are asked to teach. As new standards, curricula, instructional materials, and assessments are hurriedly adopted during the next two years, with little time for validation or test-piloting, it’s totally fair for Weingarten to worry that teachers will not be fairly judged. Oh, and that’s before we even get into questions of how wide testing windows, kids being assessed using a mix of devices, technical hurdles and assorted glitches in online assessment, and limited bandwidth may raise questions about the fairness and accuracy of the results.

Third, the politics are far more complex than the “no hiatus” crowd allows. NCLB did severe damage to the idea of accountability, turning a broadly popular notion into a polarizing one. Some of that was the inevitable fact that few of us are crazy about being held accountable. But a lot of it is due to the fact that NCLB was crudely and incoherently designed, and created a raft of unanticipated consequences. A hurried, incoherent implementation of the Common Core doesn’t do anybody any favors. One course would be to slow down implementation and actually try to get it right. That’s not happening. So a savvy political strategy might work to anticipate legitimate concerns about capricious consequences, minimize their severity, and find ways to work out the kinks before the stakes get too high. Otherwise, the Common Core effort may suffer the backlash due to frustration bred by initial problems in testing, evaluation, and accountability.

Like I said, I’m mixed on this. Strikes me that the notion of allowing states to contemplate some kind of a hiatus is worth a careful hearing. Rather than trying to shout the notion down, I’d like to see the Chiefs and other proponents of the Common Core more visibly exploring strategies that address the very real problems on the horizon--and provide concerned states and communities a variety of practical paths forward.

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