Common Core Assessments: Dueling Statements and New Practice Tests

This past week saw a highly anticipated, digitally-enhanced release costing hundreds of millions to develop and expected to involve many millions in revenues. Forget Star Trek Into Darkness: Practice tests for elementary and secondary school Common Core assessments were released last night!

This story is track two on the May 30 edition of The Education Town Hall. Full recording here, as broadcast on We Act Radio (WPWC 1480 AM in DC,

The U.S. Department of Education gave $170 million – a sum rivaling Star Trek’s reported development costs – to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to create online assessments. These “next-generation” tests support the federally-promoted Common Core State Standards, being adopted by school systems around the country.

Another $186 million for assessment development went to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Both assessments will be online. One difference between the two is that Smarter Balanced assessments are computer adaptive, meaning that they give students who answer correctly harder questions while offering students who miss easier ones.

In addition, the Smarter Balanced practice tests released last night employ technology by including short videos followed by comprehension questions, for example, and by requiring students to drag dots into place in order to demonstrate perimeter calculations.

Dueling Statements

Meanwhile, several national organizations of principals, superintendents, and school boards released a statement urging caution in implementation of online Common Core assessments, noting that tests are “necessary but not sufficient” for evaluation of students, educators or schools:

“The momentum toward online assessments and the pressure to meet another arbitrary target (implementation in the 2014-2015 school year) should not get ahead of the very real obstacles states and districts face in aligning the curriculum with the new standards and implementing the tests….

“If we have learned anything from NCLB, it’s that while assessments and the related data have the potential to be powerful tools in an educator’s toolkit, they easily can be reduced to a simple mechanism of punishment that bears no meaningful impact on student learning. The research tells us that true accountability of student learning is more complex and cannot be reduced to a test score alone….”

— full Common Core Joint Statement from AASA, NAESP, NASSP, and NSBA

The statement included a survey finding that 74% of respondents believe state funding for implementing the Common Core Learning standards is “inadequate,” while 57% of respondents said that related professional development was also “inadequate.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers responded with a statement calling for “thoughtful implementation,” and consideration of how results are used, but specifically rejecting any call for what it terms a “moratorium on accountability.” (Full document, “CCSSO-State Principles“)

A separate statement was released by eight current and three former superintendents, calling themselves “Chiefs for Change.” Education Week describes the writers as “a small group of chiefs who push more market-based reforms.” Chiefs for Change write:

“We will not relax or delay our urgency for creating better teacher, principal, school and district accountability systems as we implement more rigorous standards.”

Watch the Swimmers…Why?

To return for a moment to the Smarter Balanced tests themselves…

Remember the old memory puzzle in which you’re told the name of a train station, followed by a list of how many passengers get on and off over the course of several stops? You’re then asked – after you’ve presumably struggled with long calculations in your head – to state the name of the originating train station. Similarly, a Smarter Balanced sample question asks students to watch an animated video of a swimming race: the test-taker must wait as it loads and the little swimmers progress across the screen. But the question to be answered is solely about the final results, with the little animation adding nothing but distraction.

This is just one sample question, however. Practice tests for grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 are available in English and mathematics. Scoring for simple, multiple-choice items is available, while rubrics but no scoring is available for more open-ended responses. All parents and anyone interested in our schools and tax dollars in action should carve out a few minutes to review these tests.

Earlier this month, the Education Town Hall reported on the huge sums of money to be made in the K-12 testing industry and the serious technical problems that have plagued on-line testing in several states over the past few years.

–Virginia Spatz
for The Education Town Hall with Thomas Byrd
broadcast at 11 a.m. (Eastern) Thursdays
from Washington, DC

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