The Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics are now closer than ever to arriving at a school near you. That’s because 45 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to them—a few even before the standards had been written. Nevertheless, controversy shadows them, and now, too, the assessments that accompany them.

Those tests, developed by two consortia to the tune of 360 million federal dollars, take two different online approaches. The one offered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) comes in what’s called “fixed-form,” meaning that items are drawn from a bank of questions established for each grade level to ascertain students’ skill levels, with same-grade students being presented with similarly-leveled questions.

In contrast, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests use what’s called a computer-adaptive format. That means the questions students receive will be determined by their performance on previous items. In other words, items may come in above or even below a child’s grade level, with the potential for a dumbed-down assessment.

Each in its own way, though, is designed to measure critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills, and creativity. When it comes to English/language arts, “real world problems” are presented as opposed to reading simplistic passages followed by multiple choice questions. Indeed, the emphasis will be on contrasting, comparing, and synthesizing information from several sources, all written at levels higher than usual.

At the same time, the math assessments will no longer entail simple computation problems. Instead, there will be multi-step problems that require a firm grasp of core math principles. They’ll also be tougher than usual fare, pushing kids to “read and interpret graphs, manipulate numbers, and make calculations.” In other words, items will be multifaceted and require true problem solving.

Practice tests have already been piloted by more than a million students and, in general, performance came up short.

Butterfly inspiring, no? And if that’s not enough, both of these computer- or tablet-delivered assessments are estimated to take between eight and ten hours, with additional time allotted if requested.

Then, as all this massive online testing hits schools, there’s the issue of readiness. As consultant Debra Donston-Miller points out: “What many schools are finding is that they don’t have the technology they need, don’t know what technology they need, or have the technology but not the knowledge and training to use it effectively.”

Another problem: cost. States will apparently have to shell out $29.50 per student for PARCC’s summative math and reading tests. As for the SBAC versions: $22.50 for the summative tests and $27.30 for the summative as well as the formative and interim tests. And none of these figures includes the cost of scoring the tests. Oklahoma alone has figured out that it could save $2 million dollars a year if it simply goes ahead and develops its own tests. Meanwhile, Georgia fears that its PARCC assessments might go over the state’s entire $25 million testing budget!

Meanwhile, a CDW-G survey of 300 school IT professionals found that, while some 75% believe the Common Core will have a positive effect on their districts . . .

  • 76% have cost concerns;
  • 69% are concerned about not having enough staff;
  • 62% fear not having the technology to support all the online testing; and
  • 60% worry about not having enough classroom technology for instruction.

In the meantime, the highly regarded International Reading Association has endorsed the position taken by the Learning First Alliance that, “Rushing to make high stakes decisions such as student advancement or graduation, teacher evaluation, school performance designation, or state funding awards based on assessments of the Common Core standards before the standards have been fully and properly implements is unwise. Delaying high-stakes consequences will ensure that educators have adequate time to adjust their instruction, that students will have time to focus their attention on new learning goals, and that parents and communities can provide the necessary support for their children.”

Their suggestion: a transition period of at least one year after these Common Core assessments are rolled out in the 2014-15 school year, one initially proposed by AFT president Randi Weingarten.

The result: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has now agreed to allow the 34 states and D.C. that received No Child Left Behind waivers before the summer of 2012—none after—to apply for a delay in using student performance on PARCC and SBAC on personnel decisions until the 2016-17 school year.

But there’s one caveat: No extension will be granted unless a state can prove it has an effective plan for fully preparing teachers for the new standards and their assessments.

In other words, stay tuned.


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