CCSS implementation and the slow-moving train to Assessmentville

The final drafts of the Common Core State Standards were released a
year and a half ago—almost to the day. Anyone who’s read the Race to the
Top applications or the ESEA waivers knows that state departments of
education have begun to put together statewide CCSS implementation
plans. Some states are working to revise curricula. Others are adjusting
current assessment blueprints to reflect CCSS priorities. And all are
thinking about the changes that they will need to make to professional
development and training in the coming months to make this sea change in
standards work for kids.

And yet, 18 months after the standards were released, the assessment consortia have released minimal guidance about how precisely
they will assess the CCSS. In fact, PARCC has yet to release a single
sample assessment item. And, while SMARTER Balanced has released a small
handful of sample items, teachers need far more guidance to understand
the outcomes to which their students will be held accountable in just a
few years.

It’s these critical assessment decisions —which will more clearly
illustrate the outcomes to which students will be held accountable—that should
lay the groundwork for the curricular, professional development, and
instructional decisions that are being made across states as we speak.
Yet, delays in the development of assessments threaten to derail the 150
mile per hour bullet train that was standards creation and adoption and
to replace it with a broken down commuter train that is limping towards
an uncertain destination.

To be sure, getting CCSS-aligned assessments right will take time.
And both assessment consortia have spent tremendous time and resources
writing and revising content specifications that are meant to guide
states, districts, and schools in their curriculum development efforts.
(See here and here.)
Unfortunately, these content specifications often do little more than
reiterate the information that can be found in the standards themselves.
Or speak in vague generalities about what the assessments might look like several years down the road.

What’s more, we’re told that the CCSS-aligned assessments will be
dramatically different from existing state assessments, which are often
derided as low-level bubble tests that don’t paint an accurate picture
of student learning. Assuming that’s true, how can states and districts
move forward to build or revise their own curriculum and assessments
without being given a much clearer indication of how these standards will be assessed—of what will be different and of what that will mean for instruction?

Unfortunately, states do not appear to be waiting for an answer.
Instead, if the latest round of ESEA waivers are any indication, states
seem to be pushing full steam ahead on a separate implementation track;
one that appears to have little to do with the CCSS-aligned assessments
that will eventually be the foundation for their statewide

These developments leave some big questions unanswered: What will
happen down the road if the then-revised state curricula don’t align
well with the new assessments? Will the states be forced to re-revise
their curricular and instructional resources? Will the consortia change
their plans to fit those of the states? Will that even be possible if
states head in different directions? It’s not hard to imagine a
situation where day-to-day teaching is, on some level, detached from the
outcomes we hold students to, which will negate much of the process
made in adopting the common core.

The bottom line is that the public has put a lot of pressure on the
states to develop clear plans for CCSS implementation. In order to get
implementation right, though, state leaders need to find a way to get
the consortia to speed up their own assessment development timelines.
After all, the promise of the CCSS to transform student learning and
achievement can only be realized if those standards are aligned, in
terms of both content and rigor, to classroom-level curriculum,
instruction, and assessment. And that simply cannot happen if assessment
development and curriculum development are moving forward on two very
different and nonintersecting tracks.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute