Strong assessment tests are key to strong schools

Common Core State Standards have had quite a year in Michigan.

After a near-death experience in the spring of 2013, when a handful of legislators delayed their implementation via a budget provision despite strong support from the state’s business and education community, they sprang back to life in October when bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to proceed full speed ahead.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that another major challenge lurks for the Great Lakes State and its education reform efforts: the misguided desire by some to move away from rigorous, Common Core–aligned student assessments, assessments that allow us to see progress, identify problems, and measure Michigan against other states in the nation—critical in our global economy.

Those of us who support standards-based reforms like the Common Core understand that standards alone are just words on paper. That’s why scholars such as Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution have found that states with stronger standards in the pre–Common Core era didn’t necessarily perform better on national tests of student achievement. That’s not surprising; it would be like thinking that developing countries that adopt better constitutions would automatically have better-functioning governments or economies. Constitutions, like standards, can lay a strong or weak foundation, but their success will depend on many other factors.

In the world of school reform, the most important complement to good standards is an aligned, challenging assessment—in other words, a really good test. After all, we know that in today’s high-accountability education system, teachers feel pressured to teach to the test. If that’s a test worth teaching to, like an Advanced Placement exam, then this pressure can be healthy, as it encourages excellent teaching in the classroom.

But if it’s a low-level, fill-in-the-blank exam, then any benefits of high, well-written standards are washed away, as the test becomes the de facto standard.

One of the goals of the Common Core effort is to usher in a new generation of high-quality, truly aligned tests—tests worth teaching to. Thankfully, two groups of states, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness, have been developing such tests. (Michigan is part of the Smarter Balanced group.)

These assessments aim to be better than today’s tests. They have been designed, from scratch, to match the challenging standards of the Common Core. Rather than assess just the lowest-level skills, they seek to detect whether students are mastering the difficult material, too. For instance, they will put a much greater focus on writing than most previous assessments and will push students to demonstrate that they can make an argument based on the evidence they encounter in fiction or nonfiction texts.

These assessments will also more accurately pinpoint precisely what students do and don’t know and what they can and can’t do—to help teachers help students make progress, and to more fairly judge the performance of our teachers, schools, and systems.

Some people believe that these next-generation tests are unnecessary—that any off-the-shelf assessment can be matched to the new, higher standards, as long as the bar for a passing score is set high enough.

And it’s certainly true that yesterday’s tests sent false signals to students, families, and educators that all was well when, in fact, many young people were not on track for success.

But the genius of the Common Core is not just in their rigor but also in their call for teaching and learning that actually prepares students for the challenges to come. We know, for instance, that young students must master arithmetic, math facts, and fractions if they are to excel in higher level math as teenagers. They must also learn about history, science, art, music, and literature if they are to become proficient readers.

So designers of Common Core tests must be careful to focus on those key topics in the early grades, just as the Common Core standards do. Off-the-shelf tests of generic skills won’t suffice.

The job of a test is to both pinpoint what students know and can do and to encourage good teaching and learning in the classroom. The Smarter Balanced assessment—which Michigan leaders helped to create—appears to meet this very high standard. That’s why it has had the support of groups including Business Leaders for Michigan, along with responsible educator groups who are going to be held accountable for progress in raising student achievement.

To be sure, Smarter Balanced isn't the only assessment being designed to match the rigor of the Common Core. But it's the one that has momentum in Michigan. Policymakers would be wise to stay the course unless and until another assessment is found to be even stronger. Michigan's children deserve no less.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Detroit News.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.