Racing to national tests?

While everyone in educator-land obsesses over the $4 billion
competition among states for Race to the Top (RTT) funding, the
Education Department is readying a separate competition for less than
one-tenth as much money that may nonetheless prove far more
consequential for American education over the long term. I refer, of
course, to the upcoming announcement of how $350 million will be meted
out to “consortia of states” to develop “common assessments” that are
aligned with “common standards.”

Secretary Arne Duncan’s team cannot be faulted for the pains it is
taking to ensure that this grant competition is based on a transparent,
participatory process with ample input from sundry experts,
stakeholders, and the broader public. They’ve just scheduled three more public meetings
to examine all of this, in addition to seven sessions already held. The
“Race to the Top” stewards are posing thoughtful, important questions
and publicizing the answers that they’re getting.

Still and all, this competition--to be “on the street,” we’re told,
by March, with awards by September--is fraught with challenge and laden
with portent. For example:

  • The simple fact that Washington’s dollars are to be used to develop
    what will inevitably be termed the “national test” entangles Uncle Sam
    big-time in what has, to date, been a non-federal process of devising
    “common standards” for states to adopt on a voluntary basis. (The
    National Governors Association [NGA] and Council of Chief State School
    Officers [CCSSO] have spearheaded that process, using private funds.)
    Such entanglement carries unavoidable problems, starting with painful
    memories of Bill Clinton’s failed “voluntary national test” and the
    widespread view that, although leaving it to individual states to
    develop their own standards and tests has generally proven disastrous,
    any multi-state alternative should be “national but not federal.” (Not
    that anybody is sure exactly what that means or how it would work.)
  • This problem is compounded--there’s already been noise at
    Congressional hearings and grumps from influential Republicans--by
    Duncan’s decision to use state participation in the “common” standards and
    assessment processes as criteria for determining which states qualify
    for the rest of the RTT dollars. The (obvious) concern is that, while
    such participation is technically voluntary, Uncle Sam is deploying
    potent incentives to prod states into joining. Duncan’s perspective is
    straightforward and wholly defensible: He wants the U.S. to make this
    very important change and will use the tools at his disposal to bring it
    about. But that decision inexorably blurs the lines between “national”
    and “federal” and between “voluntary” and “mandatory.”
  • Further blurring lies ahead when the Elementary and Secondary
    Education Act, a.k.a. “No Child Left Behind,” gets reauthorized, for at
    that point Congress (and the executive branch) must decide how to factor
    the “common” standards and assessments into the academic performance
    and accountability expectations that will be baked into the next
    generation of eligibility for core federal financial assistance. For
    example, will there be a “common” definition of proficiency (i.e. a
    uniform cut-score) attached to the “common” assessment or will each
    participating state be free to set its own? If there’s a uniform
    cut-score, who decides where to put it?
  • Nobody has yet figured out the optimal long-term organizational,
    governance and funding arrangements for the new “common” assessments
    (or, for that matter, for the common-core standards). RTT dollars will
    underwrite their initial development but who will keep them
    updated? Who will administer them? Pay for them? Score them? Who will
    ensure test security? How will these assessments and their governance
    relate to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and its
    governing board? And much more.

These are matters that we at Fordham will revisit from time to time
in the months ahead. They’re seriously important and, to the best of our
knowledge, utterly unresolved today.

What’s concerning today, however, is the risk of premature closure.
How the Education Department shapes its upcoming grants
competition--remember, this is coming within 90 days--is apt to
foreshadow the answers to these major questions about the future of
American K-12 education. And the proposals actually submitted in
response to that competition (many folks expect there to be just one
such--another joint venture by CCSSO/NGA, with subcontracts to various
testing outfits) will lay the foundation on which those answers must
later rest.

For instance, one of the items already docketed by the Department for
applicants to address is how the new common assessments will “be able
to be maintained, administered, and scored at a cost that is sustainable
over time.” This is a crucial issue, to be certain, but its handling
carries immense implications for who will be in charge, how all of this
is to be
governed, managed and financed, and how its policies will be set, not
just in 2010 but also in 2020 and 2030.

As everyone knows, the present “common core” project is an ad hoc
coming-together of two membership organizations, joined (with varying
levels of commitment) by most (but not all) states, to develop the first
round of K-12 standards in math and reading/writing/speaking/listening.
Those are the standards with which the new assessments are meant to be
aligned. Well and good. Assuming the standards are strong and
substantive--the jury is out, because the grade-12 standards are being
revised and the draft K-11 are not yet visible--this is exactly what’s
supposed to happen. But nobody knows how stable the CCSSO/NGA
arrangement will prove over time--their leaders, priorities and bank
accounts are changeable--or whether their joint venture is the optimal
governance-and-management for national standards and assessments over
the long haul. All of that requires a system--a bona fide, durable
structure, with plausible financing--that doesn’t exist today. Yet the
winners of Duncan’s $350 million grant aren’t just charged with
developing a first round of tests. They must also declare what they
think such a durable system will look like and how it will function.
What they submit to the Education Department this summer may prove hard
to alter in the future.

Yet who is to say that the drafters of this grant competition and the
proposals to follow are best positioned to make those
structure-and-governance decisions? In a somewhat similar situation
twenty years ago, when NAEP was being reinvented, Secretary Bennett
appointed a diverse, blue-ribbon commission (the “Alexander-James Commission”)
to recommend, among other things, how the “new NAEP” would operate and
be governed. Many background papers, thoughtful deliberations and
meetings followed. Then the White House and Congress weighed in. The
result was NAEP-as-we-know-it and the quasi-independent National
Assessment Governing Board, an arrangement that hasn’t worked badly at
all. But what follows from the new “common assessments” is even more
consequential for the nation. Nobody says the Education Department is
working this out in secret. But have they fully fathomed the extent to
which the process by which they’re about to dole out that money may
shape the future of American education?

A version of this piece appeared yesterday on National Review Online.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.