Common Core Watch

The following is the text of Kathleen Porter-Magee's testimony to the Wisconsin State Legislature's Committee on Education, delivered on May 22, 2013.

My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a senior director and Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the great state of Ohio. We support a variety of education reforms, with a particular focus on school choice and standards- and accountability-driven reform. In addition to my own policy work, I’ve spent several years working to implement rigorous standards in urban Catholic and public charter school classrooms. Fordham’s president, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration, and its executive vice president, Mike Petrilli, served under George W. Bush. Both are also affiliated with the Hoover Institution in California.

I’m honored to be with you here today, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about what I believe is one of the most important education initiatives of the past decade: the development and adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

I hope to help explain why the Common Core holds such promise, to demystify what the standards are all about, and to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions.

For nearly two decades, state standards have been a cornerstone of our modern education system. State governments have long set minimum expectations for each grade level or grade band across all grades, K through 12. These are...

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This revealing back-and-forth with the United States Department of Education is the third and final installment in our testing-consortia series.

“The Department,” like any hulking, beltway-bound federal agency, can seem like a cold, faceless leviathan—this imposing force, issuing impenetrable regulations from a utilitarian, vaguely Soviet, city block–sized building in the shadow of the Capitol.

But those who interact with it regularly, especially those of us fortunate enough to have worked there, know that it is made up of hundreds and hundreds of very fine people.

During my tenure there, I found both the career staff and the political appointees to be knowledgeable public servants and excellent colleagues. While working for a state department of education, I found the Department’s team to be thoughtful, accessible, and accommodating. And in my loyal-opposition think-tank stints, during which I sometimes find myself poking and prodding the Department, they’ve been patient, respectful, but understandably steely adversaries.

I’m appreciative that they took the time to answer these questions so thoroughly, and I’m flabbergasted that they did so at—in terms of agency timelines—Guinness-Book speed.

What would the U.S. Department of Education (ED) like people to know about the testing consortia?

The consortia are designing the next generation of assessment systems, which include diagnostic or formative assessments, not just end-of-the-year summative assessments. Their systems will assess student achievement of standards, student growth, and whether students are on-track to being college and career ready. These new systems will offer significant improvements directly responsive to the wishes of teachers and...

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Our second installment of the testing-consortia series is a conversation with Smarter Balanced. Formed and federally funded in 2010, the consortium boasts an expert staff and set of advisory committees. Its members include the nation’s largest state, one of the first Race to the Top winners, and a number of states attempting to advance nation-leading reforms.

After my ominous prediction about the consortia’s fates, Smarter Balanced quickly responded in private. Their counter was both courteous and forceful. I was impressed by the initial case they made, and I’m very glad that they swiftly agreed to participate in this public Q&A.

Could you please briefly describe the process (including the challenges) of creating “next-generation” assessments aligned with new standards via a multi-state consortium?

The process Smarter Balanced is using is very similar to the processes that states have been using for over a decade to create assessments for NCLB accountability. Using a widely regarded conceptual approach called Evidence-Centered Design, and working in partnership with an array of private sector companies, work groups comprising assessment leadership from Smarter Balanced states have developed the various components necessary for a next-generation assessment system. Among the major elements are:

  • IT architecture and open-source software to deliver, score and report on assessments
  • Content and item specifications and a test blueprint to govern the content and format of the assessment
  • Accommodations and accessibility features and policies
  • Achievement-level descriptors, college content-readiness policy and plans for standard-setting
  • Reporting system design
  • Validity
  • ...
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Today marks the inaugural installment of By the Company It Keeps, an interview series with some of education reform’s most important contributors.

We’re launching with a three-day conversation with the primary players in the nation’s progression toward new, common assessments. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Smarter Balanced, and Wednesday’s anchor leg will be run by the United States Department of Education.

But today, we have PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, one of two consortia of states funded by the federal government to develop “next-generation” assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

Its governing board is comprised of some of the nation’s most prominent state chiefs, and it is supported by Achieve, a national nonprofit known for its “college- and career-ready agenda.” While working for the New Jersey Department of Education, a PARCC member, I got to know and admire its leadership and staff. Those relationships and my participation in various PARCC meetings and activities contributed greatly to my appreciation for the enormous complexity of assessment and the critical role of the testing consortia.

So with no further ado: PARCC.

Could you describe the process (including the many challenges) of creating “next-generation” assessments aligned with new standards via a multi-state consortium?

It is a rigorous process that requires 22 states to work together every day to drive towards consensus about a range of policies and assessment practices that support a positive and strong learning environment for every student. States...

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It’s testing season in New York, which can mean only one thing: It’s open season on Pearson, the corporation everyone loves to hate. But this time, when they crossed a serious line, far too many state leaders and reformers are holding their fire. 

To date, most of the anti-Pearson ire has been focused on a calculation error that led 5,000 New York City students to be incorrectly told that they didn’t qualify for the city’s Gifted and Talented program. Sloppy, no doubt, but not corrupt. (The error has since been corrected, and all qualified students are now eligible.)


In New York State, students whose schools purchased and used Pearson's instructional materials had an enormous advantage over those whose didn't
Photo by comedy_nose

But there is a far more serious transgression that has gotten very little attention, and it’s one that threatens the validity of the English Language Arts (ELA) scores for thousands of New York students and raises serious questions about the overlap between Pearson's curriculum and assessment divisions.

Last week, the New York Post and Daily News reported that the Pearson-developed New York State ELA sixth- and eighth-grade assessments included passages that were also in a Pearson-created, “Common Core–aligned” ELA curriculum. This meant that students in schools that purchased and used instructional materials from Pearson had an enormous advantage over those who didn’t.

Predictably, reform...

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Nearly two years ago, Achieve and the National Research Council (NRC), together with two dozen states, a handful of heavy-hitter foundations, and several other organizations, teamed up to develop a set of K–12, “next generation” science standards for states to consider for adoption. Their hope was to strengthen science education by setting clearer and more rigorous expectations than those that guide instruction in this crucial subject in most states today.

We urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience
At the present time, we urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience.
Image by moominsean.

The NRC initiated the process by developing a “framework” (National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Education) setting forth the “key ideas and practices in the natural sciences and engineering that all students should be familiar with by the time they graduate from high school.” The Achieve team then embarked on a long process of building K–12 standards based on and faithful to that framework. They released two public drafts, received comments, made revisions, and then, the week before last, unveiled the final version of these “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS).

States are being encouraged to embrace and adopt these standards—and it’s no secret that most would benefit from far stronger standards for science than those they’ve been...

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This prediction will puzzle, upset, and maybe infuriate a great many readers—and, of course, it could turn out to be wrong—but enough clues, tips, tidbits, and intuitions have converged in recent weeks that I feel obligated to make it:

Common Core assessment consortia to be replaced?
Will PARCC and Smarter Balanced be eclipsed by longer-established, fleeter-footed testing firms like the College Board and ACT?
Image by Benjamin Chun.

I expect that PARCC and Smarter Balanced (the two federally subsidized consortia of states that are developing new assessments meant to be aligned with Common Core standards) will fade away, eclipsed and supplanted by long-established yet fleet-footed testing firms that already possess the infrastructure, relationships, and durability that give them huge advantages in the competition for state and district business.

In particular, I predict (as does Andy Smarick) that the new ACT-Aspire assessment system, which is supposed to be ready for use in 2014 (a full year earlier than either of the consortium products) and which some states are considering as their new assessment vehicle, will be joined by kindred products to be developed and marketed by the College Board. And the two of them will dominate the market for new Common Core assessments.

One straw in the wind: Alabama’s announcement last week that...

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The industrial economy that typified the twentieth century has been replaced by what has been dubbed the “knowledge” economy. And experts agree that while the industrial economy was driven by productivity, the knowledge economy is and will be driven by ideas. 

Yet, conventional wisdom is—perhaps ironically—that, in the knowledge economy, what you know isn’t all that important. At least not compared with what you can do with that knowledge. Just this week, New York Times contributor Thomas Friedman shared the “wisdom” of Tony Wagner who argued:

Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.

In other words, we needn’t overmuch trouble ourselves with making sure students know a lot. Indeed, because we have mobile encyclopedias at our finger tips, skills development should be the focus of American schools, and content should be used in service of honing the “twenty-first century skills”—creativity, innovation, collaboration, critical thinking—that the knowledge economy demands.

Unfortunately, Wagner and Freidman get it exactly backwards for three reasons.

1. Knowledge is cumulative.

People’s ability to learn new information depends entirely on what they already know. That is why, absent intensive intervention, achievement and knowledge gaps grow exponentially, not linearly. This is seen clearly in the early years with what the “vocabulary gap,” which starts small but grows to as many as 30 million words by the time children reach age three.

In a twenty-first-century context, that means, essentially, that...

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The new “Common Core” math and reading standards have come under a firestorm of criticism from tea-party activists and commentators like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin. Beck calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.” As education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks, we feel compelled to set the record straight.

English language arts
Photo by susivinh

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards are: They describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

The Common Core standards are also not a curriculum; it’s up to state and local leaders to choose aligned curricula. The Fordham Institute has carefully examined the new expectations and compared them with existing state standards: They found that for most states, Common Core is a great improvement in rigor and cohesiveness.

For decades, students in different states have been held to...

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Morgan Polikoff
Test
In spite of poor policy design and implementation, NCLB has kids learning more.
Photo by Old Shoe Woman

The anti-testing and accountability drumbeat is constant: A once-rich curriculum has been narrowed to English and math. The arts have been squeezed out. Teachers are teaching to the test. There's no time for recess. And No Child Left Behind is to blame.

These claims are coming not only from the typical anti-test crowd but, increasingly, also from state legislators, governors, and even reformers.

That’s because while some of these claims are probably overblown, many of them are true. Our failure to evolve NCLB and its accountability policies has led to a host of negative unintended consequences, including the aforementioned, the myopic focus on "bubble kids" just below the proficiency cut, and the endless gaming of state tests. But what too few leaders seem willing to admit is that these problems are eminently fixable.

Even more importantly, they are worth fixing. While many would have us believe that there is no value in standards- and accountability-driven reform, the reality is this: In spite of poor policy design and implementation, the vast majority of the high-quality research on standards and accountability policies in general and NCLB in particular finds they've had some positive intended consequences. Chiefly, ...

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