Race to the Test hits the ground running

With the ink still damp on Race to the Top’s first round winners’ checks, the Education Department has launched its next stimulus-funded competition: $350 million to “consortia” of states to develop “common assessments” in alignment with “common standards.” These funds are a portion of Duncan’s discretionary kitty, which he announced in February he would set aside for such a test-development contest.

Back then, we mused that the competition might lock in some incredibly consequential decisions about the future of national testing in the United States. And sure enough, one likely outcome is already clear: There will probably be two sets of national tests for elementary and middle school students, and maybe another one at the high school level, at least if the three known “consortia” of states all succeed in winning pieces of the testing pie:

  1. A group led by Achieve and nicknamed the “Florida” consortium;
  2. A new consortium of consortia, joining three previously separate groups under the leadership of Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond; and
  3. An assembly headed by the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) that’s focusing on a $30 million subset of the $350 million reserved for new high-school tests.

The groups are still fluid and many states have signed on to more than one of them. Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz reports that “Florida” has thirty members, Darling-Hammond’s coalition, forty, and NCEE eight.

With applications due in June and awards to be made in September, much is at stake and many questions need answering. Four that jump out:

  1. What will these coalitions look like in their final form? Gewertz culls this down to two issues: Is NCEE really the only applicant for the high-school dollars? And where do the nation’s testing giants, like the College Board, fit into all this?
  2. What if the Common Core standards in their final form turn out to be dramatically different than the drafts now circulating? The testing consortia won’t know until days before their own proposals are due at ED—and maybe not at all, if there’s further slippage of the standards-revision timetable.
  3. What will it mean for America to have one set of common standards but multiple tests “aligned” with them? Will results on the various assessments be comparable to one another? Do we risk losing the potential benefits that could come from a single national yardstick?
  4. How will this work over time? Will one body of some sort oversee the common standards, while separate institutions oversee three separate testing efforts? How will these groups work together? Will they split any future federal funding? And according to what formula?

For better or worse, this process is plunging ahead whether these questions get answered or not. It’s bold, it’s brave, it’s forward looking—and it’s a wee bit scary. Here’s hoping we land on workable solutions.

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