Common core: Where are the assessments?

I wanted to continue posting on some of the implementation issues posed by the Common Core. My subject for today is assessment, or rather more accurately, lack thereof.

Returning to the Education Week article that I cited in my last post.

One of the biggest questions hanging over common-standards implementation is what will be on the tests designed for them. Some educators have reported reluctance to move ahead with curriculum because they don’t yet know what the assessments, scheduled to be fully operational in 2014-15, will look like. Others feel confident enough to move ahead based on what they can glean from the standards themselves.

Educators’ judgments about whether the tests truly reflect the standards will be crucial to sustaining the standards over the long term, said Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy.

“The biggest potential obstacle is the tests,” he said. “Because of their experience with NCLB, teachers want to know, what are the tests going to require? Will the tests back up what they are supposed to do with the new standards? If they don’t, then the entire effort is lost.”

Even though we haven’t seen the assessments yet, they feature in some discussions of the common core as a kind of magic bullet. THESE assessments will test higher-order learning skills. THESE assessments won’t provoke the same “teaching to the test” debate among teachers and parents.

Well, maybe. But I have considerable sympathy with teachers who worry about being held accountable for teaching to the standards without knowing just what form this accountability will take.

I also worry, as I’ve mentioned before, that states will back away from (the admittedly mostly inadequate and undemanding) tests they had adopted in response to NCLB, without replacing these tests with any other meaningful assessment.


But let’s assume that these new tests beat the odds and genuinely capture how well students understand complex texts, or can apply mathematical concepts to a wide range of problems. My guess is that even then we won’t be altogether happy with the results.

I was thinking about this as I read the Associated Press article on the Advanced Placement tests that ran in The Deseret News on Sunday.

As the article points out,

Last year, 18 percent of U.S. high school graduates passed at least one AP exam (by scoring 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5), up from 11 percent a decade ago.

But there are also many more students falling short — way short — on the exams.

The proportion of all tests taken last year earning the minimal score of 1 increased over that time, from 13 percent to 21 percent. At many schools, virtually no students pass.

For instance, in Indiana — among the states pushing AP most aggressively, and with results close to the national average — there were still 21 school districts last year where graduates took AP exams but none passed.

I’m actually an advocate of expanding the AP program to include more students, if only because AP classes, if taught rigorously (the only way they CAN be taught if students are going to succeed) opens students’ eyes to how much they are expected to know, and how analytically they are expected to apply that knowledge, in a demanding college-level class.

But the disappointing AP test results do suggest that entering an AP class alone does not work magic on a student’s brain. Meanwhile, of course, parents, students and schools are shelling out significant dollars for these tests. I’ve never minded asking my students and their parents to pay this fee (and yes, my school does offer assistance for students who cannot afford the test.) And I don’t expect every student who takes one of these tests to pass. A 100% pass rate would probably mean that I’d been too restrictive in admitting students to the class.

Still, we need to be wary of setting up teachers and students for failure. Unfortunately, we also need to be wary that low test scores will serve as a weapon against the test, rather than a warning sign that we need to do better.

At any rate, I would feel a lot more comfortable about the common standards if we moved forward with full-fledged implementation AFTER we’d had a glimpse at these tests. From what I’m reading on the blog, many of you out there agree.


  1. howard beale

    Again, common core may have merits but its implementation has my concerns as well. It seems like it is happening way too fast and without giving the teachers the proper training and tools to make it successful nor giving parents and others who need to buy-in all the information they need to buy-in and contribute to its implementation.

  2. Yak_Herder

    Standards first.
    Assessments second.
    Curriculum third.

    It’s just that simple. Put them in any other order and you have a mess.

    Regarding AP tests…
    AP has established a strong reputation for itself. It carries some prestige, and with that comes a tendency for parents to push their students into it. With that, you have to question the motivation. Are they after the credential or the opportunity to learn? It’s probably both, and I’m okay with that, but when push comes to shove, which motivation is going to prevail?

    I am leery of efforts to increase the numbers associated with AP tests. I am a big fan of extending the opportunity to anyone who cares to take advantage of it, but skeptical of prescriptive efforts focused on improving a statistic. History is full of examples of people using education to lift themselves from difficult circumstances. I’m not aware of many instances where a program was enacted to achieve those same ends.

    Do low scores mean we (teachers) need to do better or that we (parents) need to do better?

  3. NoKneeJerk

    For some AP tests at some schools, there are no classes offered. Students can sign up for any AP test they want. But it’s up to the student to do their own preparation.

  4. Aaron

    A challenge in developing assessments for the Common Core is that many standards are written in a way that makes it difficult to assess student proficiency. For example, take this standard from 8th grade math:

    8.EE.6 “Use similar triangles to explain why the slope m is the same between any two distinct points on a non-vertical line in the coordinate plane; derive the equation y = mx for a line through the origin and the equation y = mx + b for a line intercepting the vertical axis at b.”

    How would we assess student proficiency on this standard? If a student incorrectly answers the assessment question, is it due to a misunderstanding of similar triangles or of slope or of coordinate planes? How would we diagnose the student’s learning deficiency?

  5. Winglish

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece on the Common Core, Ms. McConnell. Sometimes I disagree with your positions. This time I think you are spot on. The state legislature recently passed Senator Osmond’s law requiring teacher pay and job retention to be tied to an evaluation system that includes student test scores. How in the world can we be expected to have solid test scores if we do not know what exactly is being assessed on the test or how the assessment works?

    Seriously, this is like testing a surgeon on a brain surgery exam without ever letting the surgeon see an actual brain surgery. How could one possibly expect the surgery to be successful?

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