Big promises for new tests

State Board must choose one of two consortia – or not

If the two competing national organizations do design tests for the Common Core standards in math and English language arts as they promise, California will be better off. It and other states will then be able to eliminate, or at least minimize, some of the ills in the classroom that No Child Left Behind has caused, particularly in urban schools – test obsessions, dehydrated learning, and narrowed curriculums among them.

With $350 million the federal government is investing in a new generation of assessments, “we get a do-over,” an executive with one of the two consortia said.

It became clear, during two-hour presentations before the State Board of Education on Wednesday, that there are distinct differences in tone, in approach, and in choice of technologies between the two state-led consortia: Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. California can align with both or choose one. Whatever the State Board, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson decide – signatures of all three are needed – will be crucial, because the Common Core’s standardized tests will drive instruction, determining the curriculums that teachers use and how they teach them.

At the risk of great oversimplification, let me cut to the chase: Those looking for a kinder and gentler assessment, one that’s focused on using assessments to help teachers, will prefer SMARTER Balanced. Those who view accountability as the primary purpose of assessments, who believe that new and improved assessments should be integrated into the curriculum year-round, and who want to keep company with high-achieving Massachusetts and high-stakes Florida will prefer PARCC.

The differences are a matter of degree. Both consortia, complying with federal requirements, will deliver end-of-the-year standardized tests in grades 3 to 8 and high school.  Both say they will offer interim and formative assessments, teacher training and lots of useful, immediate data on individual students.  Furthermore, both consortia will argue that their assessments will measure critical thinking and deeper subject knowledge that the current multiple-choice tests don’t measure; they will tell teachers how well students are learning in the current year, not what they failed to learn last year, and provide  strategies for better instruction. They will project ahead, telling parents whether 8th or 10th graders are on track to attend college.

Whether either or both can deliver all of their ambitious promises and meet the 2014-15 deadline for when the first tests will be administered is the big question the State Board must weigh. Cost is another; both consortia will use computer-based assessments and will assume that member states have technology in the schools. California has no money to fill in gaps in technology, train teachers in new standards, or buy new textbooks.

For the moment, California is nominally a member of PARCC but must decide again by May whether to participate in one or both consortia – and in what role, as a driver or as passenger. It can choose to be a governing member of either, with a role in making decisions, or it can choose to participate in both, in a non-policy role, under the assumption, “Hey, we’re California; you have to listen to us anyway.”

There are sensible arguments to jump on board early and use our clout or to wait and watch for a year to see which consortium is getting its act together. Doug McRae, a retired educational measurement specialist who spent decades developing standardized tests, urged the State Board to keep options open. “No decision has to be made until 2013,” he told me. “Let’s wait to see what they can deliver then to California and not act on promises being made today.”

Here’s a summary of what distinguishes the groups.


PARCC is the safer, more traditional of the two. Its 13 governing and 12 participating states include the larger East and Midwest states: Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Achieve, Inc. is managing it. The chairman of the governing board is Massachusetts’ education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, who personally made the pitch to the State Board on Wednesday. Massachusetts, with its reputation for excellent standards and tests, joined because he’s confident the assessment will be a step forward.

Pathways to career and college readiness: Achieve has been a leader in this area, and PARCC has singled out as a model California’s Early Assessment Program, which the California State University created, as a supplement to the  for 11th grade STAR test, to signal whether students are ready for a four-year university. Starting with this and working back to grade 3 or even earlier, PARCC will create a vertically aligned assessment system that will provide signposts along the way whether students are on track for college. PARCC has already signed up institutions of higher ed, including CSU and California’s community colleges, as partners. So far, in both PARC and SMARTER Balanced, little attention has been given to how to measure career readiness.

Year-long assessments: California’s CSTs – the STAR tests – are end-of-the-year or summative assessments. PARCC would have that too, but it would also build in accountability assessments, called through-course assessments, three times during the year. With a promise for a quick turnaround of results, these tests – interim assessments that count – would show how much students are learning, enabling teachers to change teaching methods. “Teachers will get a better picture of student performance over the course of the year than with a short, end-of-the-year test,” Matt Gandal, Achieve’s executive vice president, told me after the presentation.

PARCC would develop intervention strategies, along with curriculum frameworks that flesh out standards.

What about the worry that test prep – drill and kill – would become a year-round preoccupation of teachers? No, Gandal said, because the new assessments would measure deeper levels of knowledge. They’d be more intellectually challenging and require that students apply what they have learned in essays. He cited one possible open-ended question: Should Congress curtail deep-water oil drilling? Students might synthesize several texts. They might be asked to write a letter to a member of Congress taking a position on the issue. The tests would go beyond rote knowledge measured by the current multiple-choice tests.

Some States like Tennessee have passed laws  to use students’ scores on assessments to evaluate teachers. PARCC itself will take no position, but states will be able to do this. However, if they live up to expectations, PARCC’s assessments will be a better measure of student knowledge and provide feedback that teachers need during the year to improve instruction.

SMARTER Balanced

Its ambitious use of technology makes SMARTER Balanced more cutting edge – and riskier. It has 31 states, many of them small and west of the Mississippi. Washington is the lead state; San Francisco-based WestEd is managing the project. There are California connections. Stanford professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond is leading the program development.

Computer-adaptive testing: It’s not new. The state of Oregon and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) use it, but SMARTER Balanced would be its biggest application by far. Computer-adaptive tests are individually tailored to match student ability; the questions get progressively harder or easier depending on students’ previous answers. As a result, they can provide more thorough and accurate measures of student knowledge. Because they don’t get frustrated by failure, students take them more seriously, proponents say. By design, computer-adaptive tests require many more questions in the bank – a potential challenge.

Teacher-focused. SMARTER Balanced will have only end-of-year assessments for purposes of accountability. The purpose of its formative and interim assessments is to provide useful information to teachers. This is a key philosophical difference between it and PARCC. The end-of-year, computer-adaptive tests will be given over a 12-week period. Students will have the option of taking the test twice.

Teachers will be integrally involved; they will help create questions for the assessments, and they will be involved in scoring answers. Like PARCC, SMARTER Balanced promises multiple measures of student knowledge and richer, performance-based assessments, with more essays and short-answer responses and fewer multiple-choice questions.

English learners. One-quarter of California’s students are English learners, so new assessments must address their needs. SMARTER Balanced  highlighted accommodations for English learners in its presentation. The consortium plans to translate assessments into several languages; it already is examining how to make questions and instructions accessible to English learners. (PARCC’s Gandal told me his consortium also has technical experts on the issue; the consortium has not yet decided whether to translate the assessments into other languages, although several states have indicated an interest.)

State Board President Michael Kirst said Wednesday that the board faces a complex choice. At this point, he has no preference, he said.

Others clearly do. During public comments after the presentation, representatives of  10 districts and organizations lined up to endorse SMARTER Balanced. They included Californians Together and CABA, the California Bilingual Association, representing English learners; the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council, representing business groups impressed with the consortium’s computer adaptive technology and its performance-based assessments; and Superintendents Barbara Nemko of Napa County and Bernard Gill of Antioch Unified.

David Rattray, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Chamber, said that with SMARTER Balanced’s performance assessments, “students will demonstrate knowledge that will be honored.”

No one spoke on behalf of PARCC. But the State Board has on file a Jan. 10 letter from seven superintendents with some clout. They’re from the districts that led the state’s second Race to the Top application. Now affiliated with CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, they include John Deasy of Los Angeles Unified, Carlos Garcia of San Francisco Unified and Christopher Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified. “Our needs in our districts are significant, and so is our resolve,” they wrote. “We would like the opportunity to benefit from the innovative approach to assessment that PARCC is taking.”


  1. And look at the amount of money both these consortia atand to make! Ah the American Dream at its best…

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  2. Missing from the discussion is the point made by SBE member Cohn. Not a direct quote (but close): “Why are we bothering to talk about which consortia to join when the state is busy raising class sizes and otherwise dismantling the K-12 system?”

    Yes, why?

    After considerable hemming and hawing the consortia guy basically summed up the arguments for moving forward with (again not a direct quote): “Well, we are the responsible parties and we have to look like we’re doing something.” (Not said, but implied: Our funding streams will dry up if we don’t move ahead.)

    There was also a discussion of the sophisticated computer technology required by both consortia’s programs and the fact that most districts in CA have none of that. As in funding per student, class size, librarians, nurses, and counselors CA proudly marches into the future nearly trailing the nation in modern computer availability. But why quibble over issues like that?

    As has been said, when you take the $18 billion that’s been cut recently and add in the $1.6 to 2 billion Ed Source suggests it will take to implement common core, assessments, texts. frameworks, professional development, etc., (and now add in what appears likely to be several more billion in cuts) well, by gosh, we’re starting to talk real money here.

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    • In fairness to “the consortia guy — Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts superintendent of schools (who rarely hems and haws) — what he said to Cohn was, “I think you are asking a rhetorical question.” He did not say, “we have to look like we are doing something.”
      It’s not for Chester to determine for California what it can and cannot afford. What he then said, according to my notes, was that all states are facing financial distress but that the “kids cannot put their lives on hold until we solve our fiscal problems.” He said that the benefits of the new assessments — “providing support and feedback to teachers, even with larger classes — that work has to continue. I would argue that there are tangible benefits that would accrue to you (State Board of Education) and to educators.”
      I find it interesting that teachers criticizing the prospective assessments are suddenly great defenders of the CSTs, when, in other contexts, most teachers I speak with dislike them intensely, because they measure only a narrow slice of what students learn and have led to weeks of drill and kill in the weeks leading up to the tests.

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  3. As a high school debate coach,  I advise kids to “clash,” i.e. to hit the specific arguments put forward by the opposition, because judges are advised to look for clash in picking a winner.  But governing agencies who have fallen in love with plans to squander enormous amounts of money have found a better strategy against opposition arguments, which is to simply ignore them.  The article above depicts this strategy in action.   Critics of CCSSI adoption have argued:
    1. The CST is a comprehensive assessment that gives a very clear picture of whether a student knows what he/she is supposed to know.  The notion that the CST does not do that is part of a planned-obsolescence campaign of the type used by Madison Avenue to sell cars.
    2. It is true that CST data is only available the school year after administration, but numerous additional “through tests” are already mandated by local districts, as in the state’s largest district, LAUSD, and these assessments give highly detailed per-student date throughout the year.  Little use is made either of this data, or previous years’ CST data, but there is nothing embedded in the CCSSI package that would remedy that, although there is plenty of verbiage.
    3. We have no money to pay for any of it.
    Those quoted in the article above have no need to bother with counters to these arguments.  They choose instead the “I don’t hear you and you don’t exist” strategy.  It may work sufficiently to get the gravy train to leave the station, but ten years from now, when we bemoan all the faults and wasted dollars of CCSSI, there may be need for shelter from political fallout.  Not to worry though!  As is now the case with the much maligned NCLB, the natural turnover of CEO’s and government officials, along with the short memory of the public, should be enough to shield those responsible for this unbelievable rip-off.

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  4. It was a schizophrenic experience watching the live feed from CSBA while streaming Duncan answering to the House Ed/Labor Committee and simultaneously sending letters to legislators begging for the option to tax myself to support schools.
    The cynic in me believes that the drive to Common Core comes from an industry that benefited handsomely from a decade of NCLB and sees the writing on the wall as the ESEA comes up for review possibly as early as this summer.  There are billions and billions to be made through all new assessments, textbooks, professional development, data systems, data analysis and lucrative consulting contracts.  SBE member Chan penciled out that every school (or was it district?) would need a full time staff of five for the data and technology alone.
    Where is the money to pay for all of this?
    In a vacuum, yes, there improvements to the proposed new assessments.  But are we going to deny another generation of California public school students libraries, arts, music, world languages, small classes because elected officials in Washington and Sacramento believe that new standards and the sacrifices to implement them are the priority?
    Governor Brown tells us to expect at least 5 years before our schools see anything close to 2007-8 funding.  Yet these assessments are supposed to be up and running in 2014?  I can’t decide whether its magical thinking or lunacy.

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  5. In general, I agree with Doug. Why are we spending a fortune when the CST works well? We could push testing out further in the school year, and I’d like there to be more granularity at the low end of the spectrum, but it boggles the mind that we’ll abandon the CSTs for this.

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  6. I certainly wouldn’t argue the CST’s work well.  As was said at the SBE by one of the speakers (not a direct quote):  ” We have developed great data delivery systems, but when you look at a deeper level, the data we’re delivering is of pretty poor quality.” That is, the assessments we’re using are of pretty poor quality. Of CA’s assessments he said ( not a direct quote): “The data-on student performance- is six to ten times more unreliaible at the top and bottom levels than scores in the middle.”  That is pretty unreliable.

    Recall that in pig farming it is putting weight on the pig that counts. Just weighing the pig over and over accomplishes nothing.

    Recall that in education it is learning that counts. Just testing the kids over and over accomplishes nothing.

    This nation and this state have concentrated all of its efforts on “weighing the pig” and not the efforts in between weighing that make the critical difference. (We are, as Cohn stated,  dismantling what goes on “in between” in classrooms.)  Of course, this time it’s computerized and adaptive weighing. That should make all the difference.

    And John, the consotium guy looked like he was hit between the eyes with a large rubber hammer when Cohn asked that question. Imagine, anyone questioning the conventional wisdom about of  “more and better assessments” on any grounds, let alone a mere fiscal crisis. Why, we’ve been doing that since 1996 and look at the dramatic results: No more criticism of the public schools.

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  1. The illusive Common Core | Thoughts on Public Education
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  3. California jumps to other test consortium | Thoughts on Public Education
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