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Outlook on assessments: Crunch time for Common Core

New standards, which shall not be named, will pose technological problems but raise student learning
Common Core supporter Sonja Santelises, a vice president at the Education Trust, says political uncertainty over the standards could destabilize classrooms.
Common Core supporter Sonja Santelises, a vice president at the Education Trust, says political uncertainty over the standards could destabilize classrooms.

Praised and pilloried at both ends of the political spectrum, the Common Core State Standards—and the years-long effort to establish national benchmarks for student learning—will pass a crucial milestone in 2015, when 11.5 million American schoolchildren finally tackle Common Core-linked math and English tests.

“I think this is going to be a transformative moment for American education,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank that supports Common Core. “It’s going to be much harder for states to go backward once they start giving these assessments.”

Opponents of the new regimen agree it’s going to be a big year, but not in the way Petrilli hopes. They predict a rising tide of resistance—from parents opting children out of taking high-stakes assessments, from school boards and administrators voicing opposition to the time and money spent on testing, and from politicians seeking to roll back unpopular reforms.

“It’s kind of the people against the elites, in many ways,” says Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fair- Test), a left-leaning advocacy group that opposes high-stakes standardized testing. “Major government leaders, major media, big corporations and the corporate groups, big foundations like Gates—that’s who’s promoting this stuff, mostly. And at the grassroots level, teachers, parents and students are just feeling the brunt of it and really don’t like it.”

Administrators caught in middle

The Common Core project began six years ago as a state-led, bipartisan collaboration. Politicians and businesspeople concerned about American economic competitiveness joined forces with education reformers concerned about the achievement gaps dividing low-income and minority students from their more advantaged peers.

By replacing a patchwork of state standards with rigorous, uniform benchmarks for what students should learn in 13 years of schooling—and by designing uniform tests measuring progress toward meeting those standards—the movement’s supporters hoped to ensure that all American students, not just a privileged few, would get an education that prepared them for work and citizenship. Most states signed on.

But in the years since the Obama administration endorsed the project in its Race to the Top grant program, the Common Core standards and testing initiative have galvanized a different coalition: a strange-bedfellows partnership between conservatives who fear an expansion of federal power and liberals who think standardized testing strangles educational creativity.

Caught in the middle are the teachers and administrators who must implement the standards and prepare students for the tests—and observers predict that those folks may experience some sleepless nights in 2015. As they comply with whatever policy is on the books, they will have to decide whether to allow parents to opt out, whether to lobby legislators to keep or abandon the Common Core, or whether to stay out of the whole debate.

The political uncertainty can make it difficult to focus attention and resources on the classroom. “Particularly for those who are charged with serving large numbers of low-income kids, large numbers of students of color, that kind of back and forth, that kind of local pressure, has the ability to further destabilize what are already very vulnerable systems,” says Sonja Santelises, a vice president at the Education Trust, which supports the Common Core project from the left.

Already, two states, Indiana and Oklahoma, have officially renounced the Common Core, although the alternative standards that Indiana eventually adopted were widely seen as Common Core clones. Three other states—Missouri, North Carolina and South Carolina—are considering abandoning the Common Core standards. And as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, the issue will inevitably remain politicized, observers say.

“The Common Core, I think, will increasingly, like Obamacare, get hung on the Obama administration,” says Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who spearheaded Massachusetts’ adoption of the Common Core while serving as the state’s secretary of education from 2008 to 2013. “And so people will run from the name but keep the substance of the standards. They just relabel them.”

Another Obamacare website fiasco?

This year will introduce a new ingredient into the volatile mix—the new tests developed by two separate coalitions of states, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Five million students in 14 states are expected to take PARCC’s tests this spring, while another 6.5 million students in 18 states will take Smarter Balanced tests.

For the most part, the tests are intended to be administered via computer, and although the testing coalitions say last spring’s field tests went well, both supporters and opponents wonder if hardware and software will be up to the challenge. “If we have an Obamacare website situation, this whole thing is dead,” predicts Fordham’s Petrilli.

Couldn’t the Common Core movement, like the health care program, recover from a major computer glitch? “Let’s not find out,” Petrilli says.

And even if all goes well, the increased rigor of the tests could drive scores down and widen achievement gaps among demographic groups. That probable dose of bad news will present superintendents with a communications challenge, both in the run-up to the tests and in the aftermath of the release of the scores.

“I think the question is going to be how well do we prepare the public, how well do we prepare families, for what this means—that this is a baseline,” says Santelises of the Education Trust. “The real meaning of this is: Now we know where our students really are relative to true college- and career-ready standards. Because we didn’t know where they were before.”

Fear of distraction

Ultimately, some fear that the political wrangling is a distraction from the Common Core project’s true objective: Enabling all American students, whatever their background, to achieve at high levels.

“Prolonging this debate is using up the time and energy and airspace and the resources that could otherwise be devoted to refining strategies on improving student learning,” says Reville, the Harvard professor. “We really ought to be focused on what we’re doing to close the gaps, not on the target. Targets don’t raise performance. Strategies raise performance.” DA

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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