Join both Common Core consortia now, commit to one later
A major step in implementing the California Common Core academic standards adopted by the State Board of Education last August appears to be in the wings for a decision in May. That step is to decide which of two consortia of states now developing “next generation” assessments measuring the national Common Core standards to join, and what kind of commitment to give the chosen consortium. We think the best choice for California is to join both consortia at this stage, and plan for a final decision based on which consortium develops the best solution for California’s K-12 assessment needs in 2013.
To review the bidding, the California Common Core academic standards adopted last August require a comprehensive plan that should involve new curriculum frameworks, new instructional materials, professional development to implement the new curriculum frameworks and instructional materials in the classroom, and new or revised statewide assessments. All of this will be a tall order, involving many years and a large amount of resources. It should and will substantially affect curriculum, instruction, and assessment in California schools for at least the next decade.
A key element is how a revised assessment system – a replacement for the current Standardized Testing And Reporting (STAR) statewide assessment system – will measure the achievement of our students on the new California Common Core standards, and when the new tests will first be administered.
The federal government is funding two consortia of states – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium – to develop baseline “next generation” assessment systems and to make them available to all states during the 2014-15 school year. Most states plan to use the tests developed by one of these two consortia as the basis for replacing their current statewide assessment systems. The stated reason behind federal involvement in this effort is to coordinate the individual statewide assessments in a manner that will not only create more desirable assessments but also create valid comparisons of scores among states, comparisons that the current individual statewide assessment systems do not directly permit.
Representatives from each of the two assessment consortia made presentations to the State Board of Education in March to urge California to join their groups. John Fensterwald’s Educated Guess had a great post on these presentations that readers may review here. The rule for joining a consortium is that a state may be a Participating member of either or both consortia (but without a seat or vote on the Governing Board) until the time comes to commit to only one consortium to implement the new tests. Alternatively, it may be a Governing member of only one consortium, with a formal seat and vote on the governing board. California joined the PARCC consortium in mid-2010 as a Participating member, before the state formally adopted the Common Core content standards and PARCC had completed its development plan. The new administration in Sacramento must affirm its membership by May 2011 to continue as a Participating member. However, the May deadline is a soft deadline in that any state may change its membership status for either consortium, including joining or resigning, at any time before a final commitment to actually use a consortium’s tests in 2014-15. In other words, there are essentially no negative consequences for failing to choose one consortium or the other by next month.
While many arguments may be made in favor of either one of the consortia, mostly based on promised features included in each plan, we think it is premature for California to commit to either consortium at this time. Rather, we think California should join both consortia as a Participating member now, and plan for a final decision roughly one year before actual implementation in California. That would target the decision for 2013, to accommodate actual administration of the new tests in the 2014-15 school year. Our reasons are as follows:
- California needs a coherent and comprehensive strategic plan for implementing the California Common Core academic standards before we can judge which consortium’s tests fit that plan best. Choosing a consortium before such a coherent plan is adopted unnecessarily prejudices the larger-picture strategic plan.
- California does not need Governing member status to influence consortia decisions. California’s size inherently creates leverage, especially since both consortia will want California’s ultimate membership when the implementation time arrives.
- Both consortia plans are ambitious, and it is not likely that all features in their respective visions for “next generation” assessments will come to fruition by the target school year. Waiting until results of the consortia efforts are known will anchor California’s choice in reality rather than on plans and promises.
- It is too early to tell whether the consortia will be able to meet their aggressive work plans and deliver assessments during the 2014-15 school year. An early indicator of progress for assessment development projects is approval of “test blueprints.” Neither consortium has completed this early task. If you are in the market to purchase a new home and are considering two competing real estate developers, then it is reasonable to expect the developers to have blueprints and/or floor plans available for review. California should wait until 2013, when early indicators of progress will be available.
- Implementation costs are currently unknown, and costs clearly should be considered for a choice of one consortium over the other. STAR currently costs California roughly $13 per student to administer each year to almost five million students. The estimated costs of the consortia-developed tests vary widely. Delaying our decision until the costs are better defined is only prudent. Conversely, making a premature decision now based on questionable information may expose California to a very costly mistake. Some estimates of the potential cost are as much as hundreds of dollars per student, far higher than our current costs.
- The current STAR statewide assessment system is authorized by the Legislature through spring 2013, although there is legislation now in process to extend it through spring 2014. Having results from legislative actions over the next two years will greatly inform a consortium choice decision in 2013.
In short, California has a lot of assessment policy issues on its plate to consider before it is ready to choose which consortium is best for California. Joining both consortia at this time involves minimal current expense and provides California adequate time to study the options and make an informed decision in 2013.
Doug McRae is a retired educational measurement specialist living in Monterey. In his 40 years in the K-12 testing business, he has served as an educational testing company executive in charge of design and development of K-12 tests widely used across the U.S., as well as an adviser on the initial design and development of California’s STAR assessment system. He has a Ph.D. in Quantitative Psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer from Palo Alto, was a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development from 2007-09 and served on the California commission that reviewed the Common Core standards in 2010. He also serves on the panel that reviews mathematics test items for the California standards-based tests, and was a member of the California State mathematics curriculum framework committee.