Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Future Measurement of Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards are receiving a great deal of attention, some of which has been positive and some less so.  The matter of their utility is not yet resolved; currently, my view is that, if these standards are [1] well constructed and [2] adequately and responsibly measured, they are promising for their focusing power to improve instruction and lift student achievement in some areas.  On the first point, standard construction, my view is optimistic:  the notion of curricular standards is a good one, and I see no reason why we are incapable now of deriving strong and useful sets of standards for our students.  Moreover, these standards, however flawed they may be, are probably an improvement upon most states’ standards to this point.  Ultimately, they will be enormously influential to administrators, students, and producers of classroom materials, and conceivably will raise the average quality of curriculum delivery to our students.  Still, we are left with the issue of adequate and responsible measurement, and here is where I see significant cause for concern. I believe that public focus should shift more towards the Common Core assessments currently under development (PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessment). Ultimately, these assessments will comprise a critical aspect of the overall program and its success or lack thereof; therefore, in this post I will describe certain concerns related to their imminent future use, and predict key consequences.

Over-Promising:  All assessments are inherently imperfect, yet you might not think so from the hype surrounding these still-developing Common Core assessments.  For instance, Arne Duncan indicated that they will be an “absolute game-changer in public education”; meanwhile, the test-makers indicate that these assessments will draw on higher order skills by “leveraging technology” with use of “innovative items,”  in spite of the well-documented, longstanding issues of validly/reliability assessing such skills up to the present date (e.g., see 2011 Pearson review here).  Perhaps these assessments will improve upon prior ones, but the smart money favors at least some level of pessimism.

Minimal Piloting Prior to Widespread Implementation:  Currently, each of these assessments is set to be released in 2014-15, which allows precious little time for field testing prior to widespread and high-stakes (see below) release.

One Assessment, Many Uses:  Even if these assessments deliver as valid/reliable measurement tools, they may still be corrupted by the many ways in which they are to be put to use.  All the while being used, conceivably, to provide meaningful feedback to students, parents, and educators, federal incentives ensure that these assessments will be used as measures of teacher, principal, and overall school effectiveness; in many cases, results will even figure into educators’ annual compensation and future employment prospects.  

Narrow Focus:  Meanwhile, these tests focus initially upon just two subject areas: English/language arts and mathematics.  It is by this point fairly well established that narrow high-stakes testing often yields narrowed curriculums and more limited experiences for students (e.g., see here); we can expect such an impact to be exacerbated within a context in which expectations are raised, and the test is linked in many cases to educators’ livelihoods.

These are just a sample of the potential issues associated with the future measurement of students’ attainment of Common Core standards (for more detailed reviews, see here and here).  Altogether, I am concerned that something which could have been positive may be tainted or squandered, on account of trying to do too much, too fast with its assessment. 

By: Joe Malin 

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