Refocusing the Rhetoric on Common Core

By Catherine Gewertz — July 11, 2013 3 min read
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In small but significant ways, conversation about the common core is being reframed.

For the three years I’ve covered common standards and assessments, people have been talking about how to get slow-moving education systems up to speed quickly enough to do well on the tests in 2015.

They’ve been worrying about preparing teachers and accelerating students for the new expectations. They’ve been strategizing about how to manage the public-relations problem that could arise when scores on the new tests look worse than those on states’ current tests.

But now, little by little, a different conception of the common-core journey is trickling out. It’s one that envisions the 2015 tests as the opening chapter of a new book being written, rather than as a goalpost everyone needs to reach by then.

Witness comments made by Joan L. Herman, a senior scientist—and former co-director—of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an interview in a recent edition of the Harvard Education Letter. It’s an interesting interview if you follow the work of the two state consortia working on tests for the common standards. (Herman advises one of those state groups, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.) I’ll leave you to read it yourselves for Herman’s thoughts on the similarities and differences between PARCC and Smarter Balanced, and many other things.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I want to highlight what Herman said when writer Nancy Walser asked her if she thought the common-core tests would be ready on time. Herman said she did. But she added:

I don't think they will meet everyone's wishes and dreams in terms of totally transforming assessment, but they will be an important step forward. There are practical constraints that both consortia have to deal with, such as the limits of available technology, bandwidth, and the practicalities of testing time and cost. There may not be as many performance tasks, or they may not be as extended as some would like because of these constraints. Then there's the whole issue of the development schedule. It's so quick that it doesn't really allow time to develop radically new options. The item design doesn't break all molds for assessment, but I keep saying and thinking, 'Let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.'"

Now maybe you don’t hear much significant in that. But for my money, it sounds very different than much of what I’ve been hearing for the past several years. Instead of being fixated on 2015 as an end point—by which tests should be blow-you-away amazing, and teachers should have transformed their practice, and students should be light-years ahead of where they were, or else—it sounds like an invitation to a new undertaking.

I saw another sign of this at last month’s annual student-assessment conference sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers. At a plenary session, Scott Hill, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, urged attendees to think of 2015 as “version 1.0" of the common assessments. He encouraged them to see the new exams as the opening shot of what’s possible for quality tests.

Last fall was when I began to hear people talk about the 2015 common-core tests as a starting line. Over lunch one day, Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that he sees the first tests, in 2015, as a new baseline for the work of a more academically rigorous common-core era.

The signals the test scores send could be humbling, he acknowledged. His members—large urban school districts—could face a particularly humbling hour, since they serve a student population that is heavily disadvantaged. But to see the common-core tests as the starting line for a new era could bring about a very different result than viewing them as the finish line everyone needs to reach pretty-darn-quick, or else.

What perspective you take, clearly, connects to your view of the new standards, the new tests, and how they’ve been put across politically by the states and the federal government.

As you recall, when the U.S. Department of Education funded the consortia in September 2010, it specified that the tests be ready in 2014-15. That put common-standards implementation on a pretty quick timeline, since the common tests are to be used for federal accountability.

Some common-core supporters, particularly those advocating for disadvantaged students, have deployed the rhetoric of urgency to justify that timeline, arguing that the students who have been the most poorly served by public schools have the greatest need for more rigorous standards and assessments. But that urgency, along with a fast timeline to get your common-core act together, is proving a difficult nexus in many states and districts.

Lately, key players in that debate have recognized that perhaps the timeline might have to shift a bit. Witness the new “flexibility” the department granted states in using the new tests for teacher evaluation.

The timeline for common-core test administration has not budged. But little by little, it seems, how they are being framed publicly is shifting (at least in a few places). How far that goes, and how that reframing is sold politically, will be intriguing to watch.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.