Friday, August 28, 2015

Why are the Common Core Standards So Closely Linked with High-Stakes Testing that Many Parents Find Onerous and Odious?

It seems to me that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are tightly fused in the public’s mind with increased and more stringent standardized testing, and that this close association with testing has created a lot of resistance to Common Core. Here in New York that's certainly the case, with this year (2014-15, the first year common-core-oriented tests have been introduced) 20% of students/parents opting out of the testing.
I've been holding a minimally informed view that the standards are a reasonably good idea undermined in the public perception by being saddled with contentious assessments that may be serving other purposes entirely. I wanted to take a closer look. How real is that linkage between CCSS and onerous assessment? What caused that perception to arise? And how are the major educational organizations responding to it? I looked at the websites of some of the major US educational organizations to find out. 

I began with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, because it gives the appearance of being the central online advocacy force on behalf Common Core. So I was surprised to find it did not have a lot to say about the assessment side of the coin. They emphasize that data collection is not required, but up to each state individually. Perhaps they are reluctant to wade into the controversy, but if so, my casual observation of P.R. strategy tells me they’re dropping the ball, because the perception “out there” is so strong that Common Core is all about the testing and “teaching to the test.” And that’s ironic because, by the definition of Common Core’s learning objectives, one would expect the methods for assessing achievement to be quite different from and more meaningful than the customary, rote-questions, fill-in-the-bubble methods. They need to address the controversy if they want to make a stronger case for CCSS and help get it through this difficult roll-out.

Before going any further, it’s worth quoting this concise statement by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) as to what Common Core is basically about:

The Common Core State Standards have the potential to transform teaching and learning and provide all children with the problem-solving, critical-thinking and teamwork skills they need to compete in today’s changing world. This approach to learning moves away from rote memorization and endless test-taking and toward deeper learning.

The AFT is very supportive of Common Core. But they strongly assert that there is a need to extensively field-test the assessments before rolling them out. They make the comparison with how businesses methodically field- and market-test their products before introducing them, to prevent commercial failures. The implication is, why would education administrators handle such a large and important “product roll-out” any differently, and risk blowing the necessary positive impression and goodwill? They suggest a moratorium on the testing, asserting that it is too rushed, and they also argue against jumping into using test result to determine such things as student advancement or penalties or rewards for school performance.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to make this comparison, but this “botched roll-out” thing reminds me of the drastic effect the failed opening days of the Obamacare online exchanges had. It just gives the whole project a bad image, painting program elements that are totally unrelated to the testing problem and otherwise potentially easily accepted with the same discolored broad brush.  

The National Education Association (NEA) stakes out a position close to identical to the AFT’s. They are very opposed to high-stakes testing, and one gets the sense they are representing a group of teachers who are weary not only of having to teach with these test in mind but also of being associated by default with standardized testing, as if it was somehow their idea. They propose delaying any testing until the teaching side is rolled out smoothly. Indeed, they published an article back in 2012 expressing concern that when the tests arrived, they could undermine the effort to establish Common Core.

All these organizations point supportively to the “next generation of assessments” being produced by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) for some states and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) for others. I did not find either the SBAC or PARCC website particularly informative on the subject of the timing of initial testing and what effect is was having on public support for the Common Core, but at least PARCC was direct and explicit in stating that their assessment project is all about supporting implementation of Common Core. 

So at least they are not abashed about it, and I get the sense that they are earnest, research-based, and creative about getting the assessments right. But they do not seem to address the issue of timing or argue that allowing more time to pass would be a good thing. I imagine that, like the Obamacare administrators, they have been under tremendous pressure to get it done and out yesterday, to (theoretically) lend credibility to the whole project and generate an evidence base. But that pressure is probably also coming from political interests wanting to use results to “incentivize” schools and teachers, long before the linkage between test results and appropriate consequences can be demonstrated.

PARCC has an interesting description of how the two major evidence-based principles on which the standards are based are focus and coherence. It is not my topic here and I don’t have time to discuss it, but they do a careful and effective job of explaining how this is a rational and testable basis to do assessment better than it has been done in the past.  It lends confidence about the project in the long term, but will they get there before the political winds change, weighed down with negative impressions?

I presume PARCC and SBAC are predominantly researchers into effective educational methods and assessment design, rather than interest groups pushing for testing in the ways it is sometimes used to reward and punish schools and teachers. It’s not clear whether or not they are supportive of the immediate requirement of using the tests in the initial implementation of Common Core standards.

So who is? I’m guessing it’s political leaders more than anyone else, but to finish my roundup, I took a look at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). A section of their website titled “Standards, Assessment & Accountability” ties these subjects more closely together than any other source I examined. By “Accountability,” they mean consequences for professional educators and institutions for their results. So I’m guessing they have a strong interest in seeing to it that these three aspects are very tightly knitted together. They do come across as a group of technocratic believers, particularly in their statement about accountability, which seems to be their culminating, unifying concern – and which likely plays best with the political class. No mention of a testing moratorium there.


Tim Walker. (October 16, 2013). 10 Things You Should Know About the Common Core. Retrieved from

Tim Walker. (December 11, 2012). Beyond the Bubble: Schools Get Ready for Common Core Assessments. Retrieved from

Common Core State Standards Tools & Resources. (2015). Retrieved from

FAQs about the Common Core State Standards. (2015). Retrieved from

Standards, Assessment & Accountability. (2015). Retrieved from

Testing. (2015). Retrieved from

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