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September 09, 2009
October 09, 2009
Tests in use from Kindergarten through eleventh grade need to have cut scores that denote true readiness for the next grade and that culminate to "college and career readiness."
Photo by albertogp123
As the U.S. education world eagerly awaits more information about the new assessments that two consortia of states are developing to accompany the Common Core standards, dozens of perplexing and important questions have arisen: Once the federal grants run out, how will these activities be financed? What will it cost states and districts to participate? Who will govern and manage these massive testing programs? What about the technology infrastructure? The list goes on.
The assessment questions that weigh most heavily on my mind these days, however, involve “cut scores.” For if the Common Core is truly intended to yield high school graduates who are college and career ready, its assessments must be calibrated to passing scores that colleges and employers will accept as the levels of skill and knowledge that their entrants truly need to possess. Adequately equipping young people cannot wait ‘til twelfth grade, nor can the assessment sequence. The tests in use from Kindergarten through eleventh grade need to have passing scores that denote true readiness for the next grade and that cumulate to “college and career readiness.”
That’s a daunting challenge for any test maker, but it’s further complicated by widespread fears of soaring failure rates and their political consequences, as well as by Arne Duncan’s stipulation (in the federal grants that underwrite the assessment-development process) that the states belonging to each consortium must reach consensus on those passing scores (in government jargon, “common achievement standards”). All this means, in effect, that Oregon and West Virginia (both members of the “Smarter Balanced” consortium) must agree on “how good is good enough” for their students, as must Arkansas and Massachusetts (both members of PARCC). Can that really happen?
The angst is palpable among state officials—especially the elected kind—over the threat of soaring failure rates, and not just among the poor and dispossessed. We already know from national assessment data that about half of eighth graders with college-educated parents fail to clear the “proficient” bar on NAEP. If (as mounting evidence suggests) “NAEP proficient” is roughly equivalent to “college ready,” and if the new assessments hew to that level of rigor and honesty, many millions of American youngsters will be found unready—and millions more will learn that they’re not on track toward readiness. Such a cold shower should benefit the nation over the long haul, but in the short run, it’s going to feel icy indeed.
Yet that’s only the start. Here are some other perplexing challenges in this realm:
I had the honor of chairing the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) twenty years back when it was struggling to set “achievement levels” for NAEP. Al Shanker (and others) warned that we’d be wrong to establish a single level. It would either be too high, he cautioned, in which case far too few kids would reach it, or too low, meaning it would amount to little improvement over state-set “minimum-competency” levels. In the end, NAGB set three achievement levels, familiar today as “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” We declared “proficient” to be the level that every student ought to reach—but then, as now, fewer than two in five actually achieved that. “Basic” was intended to be a solid marker along the road to proficient and “advanced” was meant to represent “world class”. Will the Common Core assessments do something similar?
I hope some smart people are figuring all this out—but if they are, the answers haven’t yet reached my eyes or ears. Time is getting short.