Getting under the hood of the testing consortia

On Monday, we kick off By the Company It Keeps in what I think is an exciting and important way.  (It’s also going to be out of the norm, but more on that below.)

Three very influential organizations working on one of our field’s most important topics participated in a revealing Q&A.

I’ve been writing about the Common Core–aligned testing consortia for some time now, occasionally raising concerns about how things were progressing and what that meant for the future of high-quality assessments and the standards themselves.

Then a couple weeks ago, I wrote a short piece raising the ante, in effect wondering if we had reached a serious turning point. Independently, Checker, reading the same tealeaves, wrote a longer, more detailed piece drawing the same conclusion.

In short, we both suggested that an exodus from the consortia might be on the horizon.

Whether you’re a CCSS supporter or opponent, this should matter to you.  Assessments are an essential part of meaningful standards-and-accountability systems. Their results tell us a whole lot about our schools, districts, teachers, and kids. And they are expensive.

These assessments are particularly important. They are supposed to be aligned with new common standards. They are supposed to be “next generation.” They are supposed to generate data that can be compared across states. They are supposed to give us a true reading on our students’ college- and career-readiness. They are being created by consortia of states. And the federal government has spent more than $300 million on them.

My feeling was that if something big is going on with these tests, we all should know about it.

But I also realized that I had raised concerns (and made a provocative prediction) about something that lots of smart, decent people are expending mountains of energy on.

So I asked Smarter Balanced and PARCC if they would be willing to answer a series of questions about these matters that would then be published. 

And since the U.S. Department of Education is a major investor in the consortia and has strongly advocated for rigorous, common standards with aligned rigorous common assessments, I asked if they’d be willing to answer some questions, too.

They all said yes.

So on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week, we’ll publish my questions and their answers in full.

As you will see, I gave all three organizations the chance to make their respective cases. But I also didn’t pull punches.

I asked what they made of that fact that a number of states are publicly pursuing other options. I asked what they’re doing about it. I asked about the public money being spent on tests that some (growing?) number of states may not use. And I asked what this all means for the future of Common Core.

After the three responses run, some number of Fordham writers will likely weigh in, explaining what they see in the responses. Our resident Common Core expert Kathleen Porter-Magee, on whose blog (Common Core Watch), the answers will be posted, gets the honors. I’ll follow her.

But one final note. These three organizations deserve great credit for their willingness to respond. I want to make clear that I think they’re doing themselves and the field a major service.

They all had countless reasons to not respond. The consortia have complex staff and governance systems. They represent lots of different people, institutions, and interests. My questions were uncomfortable. They don’t have the time to respond to long sets of questions randomly thrown over the transom. And on and on.

The list of reasons the Department had for not answering is even longer. It is standard operating procedure (regardless of party, regardless of level of government) to brush such queries aside or respond with bland, couple-sentence press statements. Having worked in such bureaucracies, I can only imagine the hoops the team at ED must’ve had to jump through to get these answers out the door.

Cynics will probably say that these organizations provided answers solely for the purposes of self-promotion and self-preservation: I gave them a forum to tell their stories, so they took full advantage of it.

Personally, I think it’s more complicated and more admirable than that. And regardless of motives, their transparency is very good for the rest of us.

These three Q&As are far different than future editions of By the Company It Keeps. Those will focus more on individuals and will be shorter, more personal, and, at times, (hopefully!) funnier.

But the responses from PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and the Department include answers to tough questions about important work being done by good people, so they are surely in the spirit of the new series…if not members of that new family, then definitely flour-borrowing neighbors.

My sincere thanks to those who worked on the answers, and my sincere hope that readers find the responses as useful as I have.

More By Author

Related Articles