Common Core Watch

Peter Cunningham

This Sunday’s New York Times piece on Common Core standards, Queens College political-science professor Andrew Hacker and Columbia University adjunct professor Claudia Dreifus contribute greatly to the confusion and misinformation surrounding the issue of learning standards.

The piece conflates standards, which are agreed-upon expectations for what children should know in certain subjects by certain ages, with curricula, which are the materials and the approaches that teachers use to help kids learn. It also confuses assessments, which are tests to determine what students know, with accountability, which are systems of tracking student performance, determining which schools and teachers are succeeding or struggling, and providing support or intervening where necessary.

They open with an anecdote about some parents opting out of a new test in New York City as an indication that Common Core may face a broad national backlash. But the backlash—to the extent it exists—is about testing, not standards.

The authors wrongly suggest that the “uniformity of the standards” is what appeals to Common Core supporters. Actually it is the richness and rigor of the standards that appeals to supporters. The uniformity is a bonus. No one really expected forty-six states to adopt.

In their attempt to portray serious debate around the issue, they quote conservative pundit Glenn Beck (who is paid to stir the pot) to counter conservative education scholars (who are paid to actually think it through and get it right).

They suggest that Tea Party resistance to the Common Core comes from the...

Common Core debate
Jay has been the victim of black helicopter-itis
Photo by Marshall Astor on Flickr

Jay Greene's slightly Churchillian recent post conflates two Common Core issues that are better understood if they're kept apart. One involves the role of the federal government vis-a-vis the Common Core, and on this one I really do think Jay is a victim of black helicopter-itis. Of course he's right that Messrs. Obama and Duncan should have kept the Common Core at arm's length. But he's not right that a successful Common Core is inseparable from a more intrusive, controlling federal government. One of the virtues of the American system is how many nation-spanning ventures we have that do not hinge on or get controlled by the federal government: The American Red Cross. The American Cancer Society. The National PTA. The National Association of Manufacturers. One could easily extend this list quite a distance, and so it could and should be with the Common Core.

The other issue, a very different one, is whether common standards are in opposition to school choice, parent control, and such. This is not so much about the Common Core (the multi-state version) as about any sort of academic standards beyond the school's own doing. This goes to the heart of whether states should have standards, assessments, accountability, etc., in...

Following yesterday’s release of #10–#6, here are my top five takeaways from my Q&A sessions with USED, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced (most important is #1).

5.   The P is for prudence

The most noticeable aspect of PARCC’s response was its the-dog-that-didn’t-bark-ness. I expected, but didn’t get, more discussion of big successes to date.

Maybe they have gobs to peacock about but chose not to, wanting later results to speak for themselves (more on that in #4). People I trust say they are on the way to getting content, alignment, and rigor right. Maybe my questions didn’t set them up to brag about that stuff?

Or maybe my reaction is just a matter of relativity. When compared to SB’s earnest, 3,000-word, front-of-the-classroom response, heck, almost anything would’ve paled.

But maybe my affection for PARCC’s board and team has softened me. A cynic might say PARCC’s limited discussion of wins is a red flag.

I don’t find anything worrisome in PARCC’s response, so I won’t speculate. So I’ll say this: PARCC’s modest response about past activities probably won’t change too many Insiders’ right-track/wrong-track vote in either direction.

4.   Confidence about the future

Reports of the consortia’s death have been greatly exaggerated! Or so they argue: Both come across as sanguine about the days ahead.

Are their tests going to be on time?

  • PARCC: We are “on-track to deliver high quality computer-based summative assessments for mathematics
  • ...

The three-part series of interviews on the nation’s move to Common Core–aligned assessments was as edifying as I could’ve hoped. USED, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced offered meaningful information on the current state of play and clear indications of what’s on the horizon.

I’ve pulled out a “Top Ten Takeaways” from the exchange. Today, we’re posting #10–#6 (they’re in rank order so #1 is most important). Tomorrow, we’ll post #5 - #1.

10.   Competition with the testing industry is GAME ON!

In ways subtle and not, the responses sought to differentiate the consortia’s efforts from the testing industry.

It seemed like the Department’s interest was in drawing a line between the old and the new. Why’d they spend $330 million on new tests? Because, USED says, governors and state chiefs asked them to do so.

Why did states make that ask? “Because the market was not meeting their needs.”

According to the feds, the consortia are building “next-generation” tests that “will offer significant improvements directly responsive to the wishes of teachers and other practitioners: they will offer better assessment of critical thinking, through writing and real-world problem solving, and offer more accurate and rapid scoring.”

“We expect the consortia to develop assessment systems that are markedly better than current assessments.”

The implication is that the testing industry had come up short.

SB said its new tests would offer a “quality benefit”; SB’s transparency is “antithetical to the competitive nature of commercial test publishing”; states will now have...

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...

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...

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
  • ...

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...

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...

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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