Voice from the Field
Common Core Assessment: An Exciting Opportunity—and a Looming Challenge
A BLEgroup Blog — Friday, May 11, 2012By Eliot Levinson, CEO, and Kathleen Florio, editor, The BLEgroup, with contributions from:
- Kathy Duncan, Chief Academic Officer, Naperville (IL) Community Unit School District 203
- Dr. Kenneth Eastwood, Superintendent, Middletown (NY) School District
- Richard Del Moro, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Middletown (NY) School District
- Michael Tuttle, CTO, Middletown (NY) School District
Common Core Assessments: Educators are positive on the educational value but expect implementation to be rocky
Race to the Top has funded two consortia—PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and SBAC (SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium)—to develop “next-generation” K–12 Common Core assessment systems to replace the individual state standards and assessments that currently exist. Here we focus mainly on PARCC, which is currently being field-tested and is scheduled to be up and running in the 2014–15 school year in 23 states and the District of Columbia, which together account for about 51 percent of the nation’s K–12 public school population.
What do educators think about Common Core assessments and the impact they’ll have on schools and districts? The reactions are mixed and complicated. They are both positive and wary, but they suggest a major upheaval in the near future that too many school systems are unprepared to deal with.
First, the good news. Assessment will be narrower but deeper. The emphasis is not on student recall of information; rather students must interpret and apply knowledge and skills to new settings and situations. It’s about transfer, rather than simple acquisition of knowledge and skills. Educators have been talking for years about the necessity and value of transfer—the overlap of knowledge and application—but now summative assessment will demand it. One of the district leaders said, “Students who can’t demonstrate that they can take what they know and apply it in different environments will no longer be deemed ’proficient.’” The objective of the Common Core assessments elicited positive statements from our panels. PARCC items that were recently field-tested in New York’s Middletown City Schools for grades 3 through 8 required students to explain what steps they took to get a particular answer to a math question. Third-graders taking an ELA test were asked to explain why an excerpted line was either a simile or a metaphor. The tests require a level of complex thinking that has not been the norm with high-stakes summative assessments up to now. This was perceived positively by our panelists.
These kinds of assessments will push students and teachers to focus on subset skills—those that are prerequisites for more complete knowledge and understanding. For example, while an earlier form of assessment might have determined that a student had trouble with multiplication, now teachers will want to know where, specifically, the weak link is—a misunderstanding of a formula perhaps, or an algorithm—so that they can bring the student to a level of deep understanding that will transfer beyond the classroom. Along these lines, the BLEgroup panelists had these observations:
- There is a requirement that each district utilize its own formative assessment system as well as the Common Core assessment. All of the panelists like the fact that they will be able to purchase a local formative assessment as well as having to use the PARCC assessment.
- The educators do not think that there will be a large difference between states in the 15 percent of items that each state is allowed to customize for its own schools locally.
There will be considerable challenges to the implementation of Common Core:
At the top of the list of challenges is technology. Well-equipped districts with tech-savvy teachers may not need to panic, but what about those whose resources are limited and whose staff aren’t up to par when it comes to technology? The Common Core assessments will be delivered largely online (with only limited options for paper-and-pencil testing) and will require a massive amount of bandwidth and devices to administer to hundreds or even thousands of students simultaneously. Where does that leave districts that currently lack sufficient bandwidth, Internet access, and devices? The group expressed the hope that Common Core will accelerate the movement of education online. As of now, legislators in states like Illinois have offered vague promises of help, but in this slash-and-burn economic environment, those promises seem like wishful thinking. And even more troubling, what are the implications for the students who happen to be in those resource-poor districts? With assessment developers thinking ahead to using even more advanced technologies, such as tablets to capture student work via calculations or illustrations, the disadvantages of students attending schools in low-tech districts will simply multiply over time.
Even high-performing, high-technology districts like Naperville in Illinois have their work cut out for them, however. For one thing, they have to focus on what they need to do to help teachers understand and be prepared for a radically different instruction and assessment model—essentially a new era that’s going to dramatically change the way business is done. All of the educators used the hackneyed phrase “paradigm shift” to describe the impact that Common Core will have.
And districts with a history of high expectations and high test scores will need to prepare their assorted stakeholders—students, parents, and others—for what lies ahead. Because the Common Core assessments will focus on depth and transfer of knowledge, initially there will be an inevitable dip, with numbers less stellar than they’ve been historically. Communities will need to be informed about the coming changes so that the shock is tempered when scores aren’t in the 90s across the board. The challenge will be to convince these stakeholders that the assessments are a positive thing for education and not a reflection of some kind of failure on the part of the district and its students and teachers. It will be a difficult balancing act, to say the least.
To a certain extent, some of the “score shock” may be mitigated by the fact that districts will be able to use locally or state-developed formative tests to measure student progress before the Common Core summative assessments are administered. Ideally, the formative data will shape instruction and address weak spots, reducing the likelihood of disastrous or disappointing results at year’s end. Needless to say, this point is particularly important in districts where teacher evaluation is tied to student performance.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for educators is ignorance, or a head-in-the-sand mentality. Too many people appear to be clueless about the looming changes and the need to prepare for them. They’re simply not aware of the significance of the coming paradigm shift.
Finally, there’s an interesting point to consider about the nature of online assessment and how today’s kids are “wired.” One could argue that there’s a mismatch. Students who happily spend hours playing computer games are engaged in an activity that’s grounded in motivational research and strong reinforcement patterns, and we can assume that their brains are being shaped accordingly. Meanwhile, the field-test items from PARCC appear to lack these motivational and reinforcement elements. Will students be up to the task of test-taking, given this potential mismatch? And what about the fact that many districts have invested considerable time and resources in getting their teachers to develop engaging instruction, using technology and other tools to ignite students’ passion and interests? Is it too much to ask that assessment be engaging as well?
That may be the more significant question—and the topic for another blog. We’ve already got enough on our plates.
The BLEgroup, composed of 120 leading ed tech practitioners, provides technology planning and management services to school systems and a flow of market research and implementation services to ed tech companies and publishers. The BLEgroup produces a quarterly piece for the EdNET News Alert on views from the schoolhouse.