We here at AEI Education, in a true spirit of intellectual inquiry and open-mindedness, have differing views on a whole range of issues. We voted for Romney and Obama, choose beer or wine, prefer the great state of Virginia or (somehow) New Jersey. This includes having different takes on one of the day’s most controversial education questions, the Common Core standards.
On that issue in particular, I’ve often found myself far more likely to cast a “pro” ballot than some of my more skeptical colleagues. I think there’s much to be said for having a set of common standards for all students to strive for. I think that one can make a compelling conservative case for both high standards, period, and for greater information on student performance to foster a more vibrant K-12 education market (high expectations and markets being bedrock conservative principles). I think fears of federal overreach are largely (though not entirely) overblown.
That said, every grandiose vision needs to grapple with difficulties on the ground. And on that score, I’ve started to share the frustrations of my colleagues Rick Hess and Mike McShane that a number of major details with the Common Core need to be figured out, and soon, for it to be a success—and that those involved in figuring those details out have yet to put their best foot forward.
Case in point: back in March, Hess took to his blog to flag three questions for PARCC and SBAC concerning Common Core testing. For the lay reader, PARCC and SBAC are the two consortia charged with developing tests to accompany the Common Core. (After-all, the Common Core is just a set of standards—what kids should know. We need some way to find out if students are actually meeting those targets.) The questions Hess flags are important ones, concerned with making sure that students are taking the tests in similar conditions so the results are comparable.
This week, Hess posted responses from representatives from PARCC and SBAC. Unfortunately, as someone who was hoping for more, the results disappointed. Not only did it take the consortia over a month to respond, but the PARCC response, in particular, was awash in hypotheticals and maybes. In discussing the use of different testing devices (some students will take the tests on computers while others will use pencil and paper), the author glibly writes that, “The results may, in fact, be comparable” (emphasis added).
Later on, in what seems to be placing a tremendous amount of faith in schools and districts, he argues that, “Schools are responsible for creating testing conditions that are consistent with PARCC’s protocol.” (A somewhat ironic statement as the educators involved in last year’s Atlanta cheating scandal are set to go to trial soon.) And he concludes with another unsupported assertion: “when results are released from the first PARCC assessments in September 2015, teachers, researchers, policymakers, parents, and others should be assured that the results for all students will be valid, reliable, and useful for improving instruction and for use in various accountability systems.”Simply declaring something true doesn’t, unfortunately, make it so.
I thought the responses from the representative from SBAC were much stronger on the whole, although even there the author was still far too cavalier for my liking about the problems of different testing conditions. “States already have extensive experience with administering assessments,” he writes, as if “extensive experience” is evidence enough to ensure brand new tests for brand new standards are administered faithfully, while his solutions to concerns on this score more or less amounted to, “Trust us, we’ve created manuals to cover all this.” In all, it felt like an opportunity gone missing.
I have, in the past, taken my boss to task for what I perceive as too much cynicism toward education reform. I retain every hope that the Common Core will work out; I think it has the potential to be a real boon for our education system. And I want to acknowledge that there’s no absolute need for PARCC and SBAC to have resolved every one of these questions at this juncture, and know that there’s no real way to see how the assessments will play out until we actually see them in the real world. But as a Common Core supporter, I hope the next time a critic raises questions, the responses come much faster, with far greater transparency and firmer answers about what is done and left to be done, and, perhaps, even with an invite for future collaboration.
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