CCSSO gives the feds a way out

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) recently issued a set of principles for the new Common Core–aligned tests. The document sent a pointed message to the Department of Education: “Dear Mr. Secretary: We got this.”

An initial read of the document reveals that the chiefs smartly emphasized the states’ role in Common Core and common assessments. This is important, given the prominent and growing narrative that both are creatures of a meddling Uncle Sam. But the principles and accompanying press release do something even more noteworthy: They cleverly offer the feds a way out of a serious, looming jam.

But first things first: CCSSO’s action is the kind of sharp, forward-looking, politically savvy tactic that has been sorely missing from the national implementation strategy of these new standards and assessments. To date, implementation has meant mostly in-the-weeds, behind-the-scenes transition work by SEAs and districts and advocates publicly condescending to anyone with the temerity to question Common Core or common assessments. That combination has led to soft political support for Common Core overall and a good bit of antagonism, especially on the right.

Put in this unfortunate context, CCSSO’s gambit comes across as highly sophisticated. As Common Core–aligned tests begin to roll out over the next year, the Department plans to use a peer-review process to ensure that the tests are high quality and aligned to tough standards. The Department has good intentions here. I’ve been hand wringing for months about the splintering of the testing consortia and its implications. Done right, the Department’s peer-review process would partially counterbalance the ill effects of this splintering.

But the potential for blowback on Washington-orchestrated peer review is enormous. This administration drastically overplayed its support of Common Core (see President Obama’s 2012 platform, Race to the Top, ESEA waivers, etc.), which has fanned the flames of charges of federal overreach. Done poorly, this peer-review process could have disastrous consequences, namely giving lots of state leaders reason to ask, “The feds have to approve our tests? Tell me again how this isn’t nationalization of K–12 schooling at work?”

Included in the chiefs’ principles are the priorities we’ve seen for some time (tests should align to rigorous standards, assess higher-order thinking skills, focus on progress to readiness, provide data that can inform instruction, and so on).

But what’s key is that the chiefs are subtly giving the feds an exit strategy—a path to surrendering with honor.

Ostensibly, the principles are intended as a tool for states to evaluate their own new tests. Think of it as a self-assessment of assessments. But CCSSO has paved for Secretary Duncan a path that, if chosen, would help avoid credible charges of federal overreach. Such accusations, fairly leveled, would further jeopardize the standards and tests.

So what do I have in mind? The Department could effectively delegate its peer-review authority to CCSSO or the National Governors Association, saying, “We agree with your principles in full, so please create a committee of state leaders that will use this guiding document to evaluate new state testing systems.”

Alternatively, the Department could say, “We agree with these principles. Each state should create a committee of experts that will use this document to evaluate its new testing system. If that committee certifies that the new system adheres to these principles, we will grant approval.”

Of course, there are many variations on this theme. But the key is making peer review a truly state-led effort.

Yes, this strategy could lead to some states certifying weak systems. That would be regrettable. But ignoring CCSSO’s principles and running a peer-review process from inside the bowels of a federal agency would probably be a greater danger.

Just imagine the reaction from a state’s conservative and moderate leaders when a group deemed to be federal bureaucrats strikes down its new tests. That would escalate the war over Common Core to unprecedented levels.

So now it’s the Department’s move. What will it do on peer review?

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