Common Core Assessment: An Inflection Point in Public Education or More of the Same?

The assessments rooted in the Common Core standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics begin this year for 45.5 out of 50 states.  Minnesota is the 0.5 because they decided only to adopt the English Language Arts standards. Other than Texas and Alaska though, I bet you would have a hard time guessing that Nebraska and Virginia are among the hold outs. Virginia? Really? Any change from the current panoply of state level assessments (un)inspired by the most recent incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act we call No Child Left Behind would be a welcomed one. But just how different will the the new tests be? And what makes for a good test?

Let’s do a comparison of the standards for second grade reading and writing under the old standards and under the new ones. To make it challenging, and easier to grok,  I turned each of these four sets of standards into a word cloud, and placed them in a random order in the slide show below. See if you can pick out the new Common Core writing and reading standards and distinguish them from California’s No Child Left Behind inspired Standards for the same two areas..

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I bet you couldn’t do it. I can’t even do it, and I made the word clouds! As a science teacher, I have not been intimately familiar with the NCLB English Language Arts standards here in California. Nonetheless, I did expect to see a dramatic difference when I read through the standards in preparation for this post. To my surprise, I did not. The English Language Arts Standards that were written for the Common Core very closely resemble those that were written for No Child Left Behind. So why is everyone so excited about this change?



Standards are only important in that they provide a general guideline for assessment makers. Of paramount importance is the creation, delivery, reporting, and legislative consequences of standardized testing. California’s effort to meet the testing and reporting requirements of the NCLB produced inch deep and mile wide assessments with almost no writing, and zero performance-based assessment. The heavy handed legislative consequences for poor performance forced educators to teach to bubble tests. In a decade, NCLB all but eliminated higher level thinking work in subjects like 9th grade English and algebra.

Will the assessments designed by and contracted for the two consortia (SBAC and PARCC) that will oversee the Common Core Assessments be any different? So far, it seems the answer is yes, but the proof will come in the execution. Below I have copied the text from each of the PARCC and SBAC websites, respectively, that describes the testing and reporting design principles:

The priority purposes of PARCC Assessments are:

  1. Determine whether students are college- and career-ready or on track
  2. Assess the full range of the Common Core Standards, including standards that are difficult to measure
  3. Measure the full range of student performance, including the performance high- and low-performing students
  4. Provide data during the academic year to inform instruction, interventions and professional development
  5. Provide data for accountability, including measures of growth
  6. Incorporate innovative approaches throughout the assessment system

[SBAC] Assessment System Components

  • A summative assessment administered during the last 12 weeks of the school year. The summative assessment will consist of two parts: a computer adaptive test and performance tasks that will be taken on a computer, but will not be computer adaptive. The summative assessment will:
    • Accurately describe both student achievement and growth of student learning as part of program evaluation and school, district, and state accountability systems;
    • Provide valid, reliable, and fair measures of students’ progress toward, and attainment of the knowledge and skills required to be college- and career-ready; and
    • Capitalize on the strengths of computer adaptive testing—efficient and precise measurement across the full range of achievement and quick turnaround of results.
    • More information about the development of summative assessment is available in the Summative Assessment Work Plan.
  • Optional interim assessments administered at locally determined intervals. These assessments will provide educators with actionable information about student progress throughout the year. Like the summative assessment, the interim assessments will be computer adaptive and includes performance tasks. The interim assessments will:
    • Help teachers, students, and parents understand whether students are on track, and identify strengths and limitations in relation to the Common Core State Standards;
    • Be fully accessible for instruction and professional development (non-secure); and
    • Support the development of state end-of-course tests.
  • Formative assessment practices and strategies are the basis for a digital library of professional development materials, resources, and tools aligned to the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced claims and assessment targets. Research-based instructional tools will be available on-demand to help teachers address learning challenges and differentiate instruction. The digital library will include professional development materials related to all components of the assessment system, such as scoring rubrics for performance tasks.
  • A secure, online reporting system that provides assessment results to students, parents, teachers, and administrators. The reports will show student achievement and progress toward mastery of the Common Core State Standards. Learn more about the development of the Smarter Balanced reporting system.

Though written differently, there are design principles in each of these outlines that give us reason to hope that public education will get better. First, there is reference here to both summative and formative assessment. Summative assessment is the high-stakes test that determines the next academic turn in a student’s schooling. Formative assessment is the ongoing feedback that helps teachers and learners understand what they do and do not know and what they can and can not do. Incorporating formative assessment into the plan is a significant value added, and will likely make the tests more fair by instructively showing teachers and learners what students are and are not learning.

Both outlines also make reference to the use of computer technologies to improve the quality of the assessment. If well executed, this could mark a significant break between the public education that has existed up to now and the public education we will have moving forward. By leveraging adaptive testing technology to reduce testing time, machine learning to do a first sweep on writing assessments, and executing statistical analysis on huge data sets of student effort to quickly iterate on testing elements, the Common Core assessments could significantly change the game.

Like many others, I am hopeful. I look forward to the possibility of a standard of public education that provides ongoing, low-stakes assessment to customize learning needs for individual learners. I  am keeping my fingers crossed that the promise of more writing will be meaningful and eventually employ crowd sourcing of education professionals for the assessment of argumentation. And I am even allowing myself to imagine that some day, though I would not expect to see it in the first few years of the new systems, that students will be able to showcase and be assessed on the work they do throughout the school year in a more portfolio-style evaluation. A teacher can dream.

ƃuıpɐǝɹ qlɔu ɐɔ = ɐ, ƃuıʇıɹʍ qlɔu ɐɔ = q, ƃuıpɐǝɹ ɔɔ = ɔ, ƃuıʇıɹʍ ɔɔ = p

About Jack West

Teacher, team member, father, neighbor.

4 Responses

  1. whereiskatima

    Jack, I share your hopes. My greatest fear, having worked once for NAEP, teaching for 20 years and having the opportunity to see how other countries educate their children – we will find out the damage of NCLB and low quality testing is worse then any hope can undo for about 10 years. There is not enough technology to undo the failures we have lived by in a quick turn around.

  2. Jack,
    I think you touch on some key ideas here. I do agree that the standards don’t seem to be that different, though what we do with them may be. I am hopeful that the adaptive, formative assessments will yield more timely information that can lead to an action plan of personalized instruction for each student.
    I too hope for the day when portfolios and a wide body of work represent learners instead of those “one time” tests that capture a moment in time.
    Thanks for sharing,

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