by Anne Wujcik, Educational Research Analyst, MDR
There’s good news and bad news this week. The field testing of the new Common Core assessments from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) appears to be going fairly smoothly. The bad news is that we’re still talking about testing, and I apologize for that.
To say that things went fairly well is not to say there haven’t been problems, but there are no reports of massive failures or, for that matter, of sobbing students. It seems like teachers and students got the message that this is a test of the test, not of the students themselves or of their teachers. As for glitches and even outright failures, that’s what a field test is all about. In addition to vetting test items for validity and reliability, the field test provides an opportunity to identify weaknesses in the infrastructure.
The bad news is that these tests, for all their newness and attempt to be better measures of things that really matter, have come to command so much attention. When the testing consortia were first launched with the promise of tests that would assess more meaningfully and deeply students’ concept mastery, I was a fan. I’ve become more and more skeptical along the way. One of the problems under No Child Left Behind’s accountability system was that test scores were used to beat up schools, which resulted in a real narrowing of curriculum as more and more emphasis was placed on ensuring that students were ready for the year-end tests. I had hoped that new assessments, aligned more tightly to the Common Core standards that students would be expected to master and using new, more innovative item design, would limit classroom time devoted to test prep. Instead teaching to the standards would become the norm and teachers would be freed to innovate and engage in more in-depth exploration of concepts.
But we can’t seem to get our politics and our pedagogy in balance. While ESEA waivers seem to have solved the worst of the “failing” schools problem, the administration substituted a new stumbling block in its demand that student test scores count significantly in the teacher evaluation systems the states are rolling out. Who demanded that we implement a transformational set of learning standards, launch new technology-based assessments that challenged existing infrastructure, and then tied teacher evaluation (and pay and retention) to scores on those new tests all within a five year time period? It’s no wonder the states are making adjustments, pushing back the dates at which test scores count for both teachers and students. I’m not against accountability, but the question is what are we trying to do here – gather data that will help improve teaching and learning or go back to using that data punitively? Yes, test scores should matter. But it’s the teaching and learning that are central.
In the end, though we are currently arguing about the Common Core, testing, local control and student data privacy, it’s really all about transforming our schools to meet the needs of the 21st century. We have to shift from lecturing and listening to creating and exploring. The Common Core and other rigorous college- and career-ready standards, while not perfect, are a start and we have to find ways to support teachers and schools as they move forward. We need to celebrate educators’ embrace of STEAM (the “A” represents the addition of the arts to the traditional STEM disciplines), defend their experimentation with project-based learning, and clamor for more integrated, cross-curricular approaches to lessons.
If we want to see our schools maintain the more well-rounded approach that we all know is central to turning out not just college- and career-ready students but students who are prepared to thrive in an increasingly diverse and complex society, we all need to support the major shifts in the way in which teachers deliver the curriculum and the increased demand on students to take responsibility for their own learning. Parents need to understand that their children may have to work a bit longer and harder. Teachers have to resist the pressures, wherever they’re coming from, to once again narrow the curriculum and rein in innovation. Local and state education leaders have to be prepared to explain the benefits of more rigorous instruction and calm the fears generated by one set of test scores. Policy makers have to give the Common Core time to gel and grow roots. And we all have to begin a reasoned dialog about what we want for our students and how we are going to achieve that – a dialog we never seem to get around to in any meaningful way. And without a common vision, it’s hard to move forward.