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Common Core Tests: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

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The phrase “Common Core test” turns out to encompass far more than most people realize.

At the Education Writers Association’s spring seminar in Denver on covering assessments in the era of the new standards, it became clear to reporters that there is no such thing as “The Test.” Rather, there are many tests, developed by different organizations all purporting to be aligned with the new Common Core State Standards.

Derek Briggs of the University of Colorado Boulder and Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers spoke with the EWA audience (in separate sessions due to Minnich’s delayed flight) about the current testing landscape, and what’s on the horizon for schools, districts and states.

In addition to the two major testing consortiums — PARCC and Smarter Balance —  there are the offshoot alternative assessments for children with special needs and the tests developed independently by states that have pulled out of the consortium.

At the same time, the chance that the various groups will develop vastly different tests given that they are all supposed to be assessing the same set of skills, is not likely, said Briggs, a professor of research and evaluation methodology. The challenge for all of the developers will be figuring out how to measure students’ grasp of complex skills within the limits of a standardized test.

“How is it possible to assess Common Core State Standards and depth of knowledge with just selective response items?” Briggs asked. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, it’s just a real challenge.”

Minnich made the point that most previous state tests did a poor job of measuring student skills in a way that was useful for parents, teachers and students. Results must end up in classrooms faster than they do if they are to help teachers address holes in student understanding, he said.

“You don’t see [an] outcry when kids and parents know that the assessment means something,” said Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the former testing director in Oregon.

At the same time, tests like the ones being developed to measure student understanding of the Common Core standards will take longer to grade as they involve student essays and evaluation of multi-step problems, including performance tasks that could require students to complete a hands-on activity. So there’s a trade-off, according to Briggs, between what a test can measure and how much time is allotted for measurement.

“If you really want to assess these things at a deeper level it’s going to take more time,” Briggs said. “And people don’t want to put the time in.”

Both panelists had some specific tips for journalists in covering the new tests. Here are a few:

Don’t equate “proficiency” with “passing.” These are not tests that kids will either pass or fail. They will display varying levels of proficiency on specific standards.

  • When covering a local district, make sure the schools completed the tests in the appropriate window and check for any security irregularities.
  • Find examples of your state’s previous test questions and write an article comparing them to questions on your state’s new test.
  • Do not (not, not, not, not) compare student scores on the first round of Common Core-aligned tests with student scores on your state’s previous standardized test. The two tests are not (not, not, not, not) equivalent.
  • Call out the claim that these tests are “high stakes.” In many places the stakes are not really that high, while in others, teachers’ jobs are on the line. Find out exactly what the stakes are in your state.

Finally, Minnich urged reporters to pay close attention to the gap between their state’s previous proficiency standard – that is, the level of achievement students must reach to be considered “proficient” – and the new ones. He pointed out that most states had proficiency standards that fell significantly below the national ones measured by NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). For states with a particularly wide gap, it is likely that far more students will not reach the proficient bar on the new tests.

And while high standards are important, it’s even more important to do the work necessary to meet those standards, Minnich said.

“From what we know about the way kids learn, they don’t grow in a straight line,” he said. But if you set high expectations, kids will adjust to them and grow, Minnich added: “There’s evidence of that.”