Common Core tests for students are debuting on time this spring, but after years of bruising attacks from both the left and right, the groups tapped by the federal government to develop them are struggling to live up to all the hype.
Back in 2010, the plans for the new tests were introduced with much fanfare and many promises: The exams would end the era of dumbed-down multiple-choice tests and the weeks of mindless prepping that precede them.
They’d bring coherence to a mishmash of state exams and allow states for the first time to compare local students to their peers elsewhere in the U.S. Their online format would make testing more efficient, more accurate and more relevant to the digital age.
But a lot has changed since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised teachers during a speech in 2010 the tests that many of them had “longed for.”
The federal government invested $360 million in a grant competition to spur development of the tests. Two coalitions of states – calling themselves the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – won grants to create tests aligned to the Common Core, a set of grade-level expectations in math and English adopted by over 40 states.
States hurried to sign up with the coalitions after the U.S. Department of Education made tougher exams a condition for some federal funding.
Then critics on the left attacked the tests because of how the scores – which are expected to be far lower than on previous tests – will be used to evaluate schools, teachers and students. On the right, critics saw the tests as another example of federal overreach into schools.
The political battles over the Common Core dampened enthusiasm for the tests. In addition, some complained about how long the exams are expected to take: Smarter Balanced will take perhaps as long as eight and a half hours, while some PARCC tests will take over 10 hours. The estimates vary from state to state.
As a result, of the 26 states that signed up for PARCC, just 11, plus Washington, D.C., will give the test this spring. Of the 31 that signed up for Smarter Balanced, 18 will be giving the tests. Some of these states have already committed to dropping out next year.
Many schools that failed to obtain the basic technology necessary for the new exams have been forced to opt for less optimal paper-and-pencil versions in the inaugural year. And despite assurances that “drill and kill” test prep would end, schools are scrambling to get their students ready for tests that still rely heavily on multiple-choice questions.
Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a research center, thinks the public may be disappointed when students sit down to take the tests for the first time.
“None of us have really seen PARCC and Smarter Balanced,” said Hess. “We don’t know whether they will be better or worse.”
Based on the practice questions released by both initiatives, others in education policy say they’re confident that these tests will be a marked improvement over their forerunners.
A study by the research center RAND Corp. published in 2012 looked at how well 17 of the old state tests gauged “higher-order skills,” such as abstract thinking and the ability to draw inferences from multiple sources. RAND concluded that only 2 percent of math questions and 21 percent of English questions were higher-order.
Multiple-choice questions were the worst offenders, according to the researchers, who didn’t find a single higher-order multiple-choice math question.
“In the old tests a student would just get a vocabulary word by itself and would be asked to find a synonym,” said Andrew Latham, director of Assessment & Standards Development Services at WestEd, a nonprofit organization that worked with Smarter Balanced and PARCC on the new tests. “Now you will get that word in a sentence. Students will have to read the sentence and be able to find the right answers through context clues.”
The biggest difference in the tests, many say, are their “performance tasks.” On the English tests, these sections ask students to write using evidence from the texts. The math performance tasks consist of multi-step problems that are designed to require strategic thinking.
“From the field test, we know we are not going to see a lot of students doing really well on these performance tasks,” said Derek Briggs, professor and program chair at the Research & Evaluation Methodology program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
One of the benefits of performance tasks, some say, is they’re less vulnerable to test prepping.
“Anything you do will provoke test prep, but in order to answer these questions correctly you need to know the standards deeper. You can’t get this through drill-and-kill test prep,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education who’s a senior research adviser to Smarter Balanced.
Performance tasks aren’t necessarily a panacea, however. These sections rely heavily on open-ended questions, meaning that they’ll take more time at a moment when a growing anti-testing movement is calling for reducing the amount of time students spend testing. And they’re more complicated – and more expensive – to grade.
“But there is just no way not to have them,” said Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and an adviser to PARCC. “You have to see the evidence that students can do the things we care about. Students can fake it on multiple-choice questions.”
Smarter Balanced, in particular, made a big bet on technology. The exam is computer-adaptive, meaning that when a student answers a question correctly, the next problem is more difficult. If the student answers the question incorrectly, the next question is easier. The idea is that this system more precisely gauges students’ true level of knowledge.
But problems with technology in districts across the country have limited the rollout of these features. Smarter Balanced estimates that 10 to 20 percent of its 7 million students will have to use paper tests. PARCC told The Associated Press that it expects about 25 percent of its 5 million students to take paper tests.
“This year, millions of students are taking technology-based assessments in nearly every state,” said Dorie Nolt, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. “Next year, millions more will. This year is a key first step toward the ultimate goal of better tests that more accurately capture what students are learning.”
With so much still in flux, experts say time is what the tests need to get better.
“Even states not using PARCC or Smarter Balanced are building new, better tests and will continue to improve those tests over time,” Nolt said.