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This spring, students across the country are sitting down to new tests tied to the Common Core, or at least that was the plan.
Last week, technical issues brought testing to a halt in three states, while in yet more states, thousands of parents refused to let their students sit for exams that are expected to be much harder than the old state tests they are replacing. This all comes at a time when the standards, the tests and how test scores are used are being fiercely debated by school boards, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.
After technology issues stopped the new online tests in Montana, that state’s superintendent told districts that they no longer had to give a test this year. Nevada and North Dakota – which used the same testing company, Measured Progress, to administer the tests – had similar issues.
Meanwhile in New York, over 150,000 students opted not to take that state’s Common Core-aligned tests. And across the country in Portland, Oregon, just about five percent of students opted out of the tests. Federal funding is at risk when more than five percent of students don’t take mandated annual tests, though it is unclear whether or how states or districts will be punished.
Frederick Hess, Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says that this should have been expected.
“It was not a good week for Common Core advocates,” said Hess. “But for years questions were raised about whether the technical infrastructure was going to be able to bear the load, and whether states were moving on a political timeline and not thinking about the IT infrastructure. People have also consistently asked if the case had been made to parents that this is good for their kids.”
Hess says that these setbacks may well have long-term effects.
“It’s hard to imagine Common Core, PARCC or Smarter Balanced will ever be a good brand in many communities,” said Hess, referring to the two state consortia that, with the help of federal money, developed tests aligned to the standards.
Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a Common Core proponent, agrees that some of this was expected but thinks that the news hasn’t been all bad.
“The good news is that the technical issues are isolated to just a few states,” said Petrilli. “Smarter Balanced has been more decentralized, allowing each state to contract with testing companies, while that maybe has made them more nimble than PARCC, it might have also made the system less stable.”
Petrilli sees the opt-out movement as a bigger threat to the tests.
“This is a big deal,” said Petrilli. “Is New York the canary in the coal mine? Time will tell. Some say this is happening in New York because they are two years ahead of everyone else with the switch to Common Core tests, but I think it’s more to do with Governor Cuomo. The responsibility for this rests firmly with the governor. The lesson here is don’t be a jerk to your teachers.”
Given all the pushback, change may well be on the horizon. Last week, the U.S. Senate education committee passed a bill that would give states more latitude in how they use test scores to evaluate schools and teachers. And PARCC began talking about shortening its tests. Currently some PARCC tests take over 10 hours.
Hess says that advocates should expect the pushback to continue until they sell the middle class on the benefits of the Common Core for their children.
“History has shown that political parties and reform agendas succeed when they appeal to middle class, suburban families,” said Hess. “Social Security and Medicare have done a lot for the most disadvantaged but at the same time they were embraced by the middle class because there was a sense that we were all in it together. With the Common Core, middle class families would be happy to stay on the sidelines, but if their kid is going to miss out on 10 hours of classroom time, it’s no longer let’s do what we can to help all children, it’s my kids are being hurt.”
Indeed, two newspapers in suburban New York, looking at the opt-out data, found that the opt-out movement was stronger in middle class districts than in either poor or rich districts.
Like Hess, Ray Salazar, an English teacher in Chicago and parent of two, thinks that Common Core advocates missed an opportunity to explain the goals of the standards and the tests.
While Salazar does not consider himself anti-testing, he and his wife decided to opt their children out of the PARCC because they didn’t think it would improve their kids’ educations.
“I love the [Advanced Placement] English language tests, well at least the written part, students have to synthesize and analyze texts and build arguments. This test tells us if students can do what we want them to be able to do,” said Salazar
Salazar thinks states need to cut down on the amount of tests given, so they can afford to give tests more like the AP English language test, tests – he says – that will give teachers information to inform how and what they teach.
“Whatever test, the results need to be teacher, student and parent friendly. They should impact instruction and be understandable for parents and students,” Salazar added. “It should be like a cholesterol test, most of us don’t know the science but we do understand the results.”