Utah takes exception to the testers . . . or to tests?

I said in my last blog that I might irritate opponents of the common core who cite Massachusetts as an example of a state that has sacrificed its higher educational standards in the face of federal government bribes and threats.

Here’s why. I’m worried that in opposing federal education bullying – a point on which I agree with common core opponents – they may be strengthening the hand of those elements of the educational establishment that simply oppose testing and the accountability that potentially accompanies testing.

A recent Heritage Foundation blog applauded Utah for dropping out of a common core testing consortium

When the fight for control over what is taught in American schools is won, Utah will be remembered for having fired the shot heard ’round the country’s classrooms and statehouses.

In a move that should inspire other state leaders concerned with the Obama Administration’s push to nationalize standards and tests through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the Utah State Board of Education voted 12–3 to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the national testing consortium the state joined as part of the its agreement to adopt national standards.


The same blog posting notes that:

While Utah still plans to implement the standards in the coming academic year, it will now choose from among various testing companies to measure the academic achievement of students, divesting the state from the federally funded testing consortium.

Choice is good. But I was struck by something that Fordham Institute spokesman (and Common Core supporter) Michael Petrilli told the Salt Lake Tribune:

Michael Petrilli, executive director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said last week before a visit to Salt Lake City that it seemed premature to pull out of the consortium before seeing how the tests turn out.

He said withdrawing would only mean less influence for Utah over the tests, “so if the concern is Utah doesn’t have enough control over its destiny, I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense.”


I’m not sure that Utah has sufficient clout to make a big difference in the consortium’s tests one way or another, so maybe the school board’s vote represents a blow for educational choice. And then again, maybe the school board is simply placating common core opponents. The common core standards themselves remain Utah education policy, at least for now.

What worries me is that either Utah will end up saddled with new standards – and the accompanying expenses, such as new textbooks and teacher training – yet will resist measuring whether students are meeting these standards . . . or that adopting the common core will turn out to mean offering lip service to educational reform while maintaining the status quo.

We may well admire the steps Massachusetts took to improve education, and the impressive results that state achieved without federal government pressure. But is Utah willing to travel down the same road , and engage in the tough, expensive, worthwhile task of writing comprehensive content-based standards and designing tests to determine whether students are learning what the state thinks they need to learn?

Here’s where the case for some kind of common standards  becomes stronger. Writing and administering tests – especially good tests that measure higher order skills – is difficult and expensive. While I applaud Utah for resisting the federal government’s bullying tactics, and maybe the commercial pressures of testing consortia as well, it’s less clear to me that Utah should try to go it alone. Why not team up with like-minded states to share costs and expertise?

My concerns may be misplaced. Perhaps the school board is just trying to retain freedom to choose among competing tests, and is willing to sacrifice rather negligible influence over the test development process in exchange. Still, I wonder if the state school board’s next step will be a decision to save money (and spare themselves the ire of those who oppose more wide-spreading testing, publication of school test results, and accountability measures based on these results) and decide not to adopt ANY common core assessments.

Again, I have a lot of sympathy for common core opponents. But are they also status quo supporters? This remains to be seen.



  1. howard beale

    We need to work toward ASSESSMENT. That is different from a test. Certainly, a test is an assessment. But those bubble tests are poor assessments of student learning. But to do proper assessment it takes thought first and investment second. The IB program for example, uses a much better assessments than these bubble tests common in the Criterion Reference Tests (CRT’s). The use of portfolios and the use of technology asking students to produce products and show what they learned, rather than hoping they can guess it on a bubble test (one can get an answer correct on these tests by guessing and not really know the answer or visa versa be faked out by the question but really know the concept). A project based or the essay format (used by IB and AP) requires students to SHOW what they know. But again, it would take some amount of time and money to invest in these types of assessments, something that education on the cheap doesn’t allow.

    • Mary McConnell

      I like both the idea of portfolios and the idea of AP/IB style essay questions – and yes, both would require more resources. Remember that this was the initial premise of my series of posts on making Utah education exceptional. If we ARE going to have some additional resources, but not a lot of additional resources, where should this money go? One answer is toward better testing. Sounds like we agree on this one.

      I have taught AP classes for several years, and find them a good – not perfect, but good – model for moving forward with assessment. They are content based: the College Board expects the student to know a lot about European history, or chemistry, or literature. They are also skills-oriented, requiring students to analyze documents or data, organize their ideas into essays, and apply as well as regurgitate knowledge.

      Indeed, much of what disturbs me about education is that a segment of our students receives serious assessment: the kids on the AP or IB track. But why should these be the only students who need to demonstrate their ability to apply knowledge or write a coherent essay?

      My only concern about the portfolio proposal is the necessary subjectivity of portfolio evaluation. In the hands of strong teachers and administrators, portfolios, and especially portfolio defense, can be a wonderful assessment tool. But I worry that “portfolios” have been used in the past to duck the bad news that a more standardized (note I mean standardized, not just bubble) assessment might provide.

  2. Howard Beale

    A portfolio board should be created of an English, Math, Science, Social Studies and elective (art, vocational, fine arts, PE etc.) teachers. It should include at least one administrator and maybe 3-4 parents or a panel of 9-10 people. Not to reinvent the wheel but something like Sterling Scholars. Heck, watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the concept. All the students had to present something to show their learning. Sure it was a Keanu Reeves comedy but I loved the concept of the final assessment.

  3. Pat in Maine

    The two assessment groups PARCC & SBAC were funded through the US Dept of Education at $330M. Does anyone believe the amount to fund these parties will remain this low for long? Utah wants to keep the option open for competition and I think that is a good idea.
    The NWEA, a private company, offers similar computer adaptive testing and I’m sure they are looking at CCSS to expand their business. They currently offer two assessments per year at approximately $13.00 per student.
    The following link shows the projected cost per student testing offered by SBCA and PARCC:
    Projected Costs
    Smarter Balanced currently projects that the per
    pupil costs for the new assessment system, including
    both the ELA and mathematics assessments, will
    be $19 .81 per year for the summative assessments
    and an additional $7 .50 per year for those states
    that choose to use the interim assessments . Smarter
    Balanced will provide updated cost projections as
    the development work continues.

    Projected Costs
    As of November, 2011, PARCC projects that the cost
    per student, per test (ELA test or mathematics test)
    will be $9 .54 if 50 percent of the scoring is done by
    computers and 50 percent by humans, or $11 .01 if
    fully scored by humans.

    The future of these two federal testing groups, PARCC and SBAC will rely on federal and state funding. If they follow the norm they will double in size, scope, and cost, not to mention mandates, in just a few years. Remember Fannie and Freddie?

    • Mary McConnell

      Thanks for the information. I share your concern that testing companies have been deeply involved in – and stand to gain from – the common core standards. Potential conflicts of interest abound.

      But – I’m less shocked by the cost of the tests. If we are going to replace the much-maligned bubble tests with more in-depth assessments, including essays, then testing is going to cost more. That’s why I included more and better tests in my list of areas where Utah SHOULD spend additional education resources.

      Whether these tests, or test consortia, are the right way to go is another question. Your comment in some ways reinforces my concern that Utah will end up with new standards (and accompanying expenses and disruption) without a way to measure whether students are achieving these or other educational goals.

  4. Pat in Maine

    I believe the assessments from PARCC and SBAC will determine the standards of the future. There is still no known process in place for changes in CCSS or assessments. Who will make these changes? What will the cut-scores look like? If states want to retain any control, they should be careful of adopting mandates that have hidden elements. The quality of the standards and assessments are up for debate as well. In Maine a spokesman for the Maine DOE testified at the public hearing for adoption of the CCSSI that “It would not cost anything to implement CCSS.” We know that is just nonsense. I fear that political influence will cause the quality and content to erode over time.

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