Forum: Common Core State Standards Opening New Chapter in U.S. Education Reform

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Testing in America’s K-12 schools is expected to change radically in the 2014-2015 school year under a new set of education standards adopted by most states, but challenges associated with implementing the still-undeveloped tests make the anticipated changes a tenuous prospect.

That was one of the key points from “Education’s Next Big Test,” a Washington Monthly-led discussion hosted Tuesday at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

“A lot can happen between now and spring of 2015,” said Laura McGiffert Slover, Senior Vice President at the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two federally-funded consortia of states charged with designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards adopted by a number of states in 2009.

Slover reported that PARCC is “on track and where we need to be in our timelines,” but she also said that important aspects of the assessments have yet to be worked out, such as the development and field-testing of assessment items and setting cut scores for proficiency.

The higher education community is being engaged in the development of the tests, Slover said, but political will must be garnered to make the Common Core assessment effort a success. And important questions remain about the ability of states to harness technology to administer the tests online so that feedback becomes nearly instantaneous, as well as how states will pay for the new tests in a fiscally constrained environment, Slover and other panelists said.

Tuesday’s discussion was meant to highlight a new special report produced by Washington Monthly with support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Beyond Slover, the panelists featured three education writers/policy experts who wrote articles for the special report. They are: Bill Tucker, Deputy Director for Policy Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Susan Headden, Senior Writer at the Education Sector; and Bob Rothman, Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The discussion also included Barbara Chow, Education Program Director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Throughout the discussion, panelists extolled the virtues of the Common Core State Standards and the assessments being developed to accompany those standards as ushering in a new era of reform that essentially puts No Child Left Behind in the rearview mirror.

 

No Child Left Behind — the high-stakes testing initiative that became the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s education agenda but was often criticized as an unfunded mandate that was overly punitive — is not being supplanted. Rather, the Common Core State Standards, voluntarily adopted by 45 states, and the attendant assessments were cast Tuesday as being a smarter way to test more meaningful things.

 

Those more meaningful things include higher order thinking skills, such as students’ ability to synthesize and analyze information, which the speakers said have taken on increased significance to secure gainful employment in the so-called “21st century knowledge economy.”

         

“To remain globally competitive, we really don’t have a choice about this,” Chow, of the Hewlett Foundation, said of the need to better prepare American students for economic success and participation in the democratic process.

Citing the United States’ lackluster math and reading scores in relation to other countries, Chow said, “If we don’t significantly improve the quality of our education system, our ability to attract high-wage jobs and industries in the global marketplace will be significantly diminished.”

Federal support for the new assessments emanates by way of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Assessment Program, a $330 million U.S. Education Department initiative through which PARCC was awarded $170 million. The other consortium, SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), got $160 million.

Both consortia are expected to “move beyond narrowly-focused bubble tests,” the Education Department says, and to develop a “new generation of tests.”

Slover said the tests will assess student knowledge of mathematics and English language arts from kindergarten through high school and that the big idea is to graduate students who are ready for their first year of college or workforce training for high-skill jobs.

“We want students to enter into credit-bearing courses prepared so they don’t need remediation,” Slover said. Too many students, she said, pass graduation “exit exams” and the like but are still unprepared for the first year of college.

Slover said state adoption of the Common Core State Standards “was the easy part,” but whether the standards will affect teaching positively remains to be seen.

“It worries me that we will put all this energy into it and that it won’t change practice,” Slover said.

Rothman, of the Alliance for Excellent Education, likened the Common Core State Standards to the standardization of America’s railroads, which was ushered in by President Lincoln during the Civil War to more effectively transport military materiel and goods.

Previously, Rothman said, rail tracks varied by locality, which meant materials had to be offloaded from one train and onto another in order to be transported across the nation. But once the railroads became uniform, he said, things could be transported across the continental United States on one train.

Rothman holds similar hopes for the Common Core State Standards.

“This system holds promise for a number of reasons,” Rothman said. “The most obvious is that expectations for all students in virtually every state are the same. The expectation is students will learn what they need to learn to be prepared for college and careers.”

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