When 1+1+1 Doesn’t Add Up

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Conflating testing and evaluation with education standards threatens Common Core.

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Students and teachers are heading back to school filled with the excitement of new discoveries, adventures in learning, and new relationships. At the same time, teachers are confronting initiatives that have the potential to strengthen their teaching or make their success in the classroom much more difficult. Two initiatives that have been tied to implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – namely, assessing students’ knowledge of CCSS material before full implementation and evaluating educators based on CCSS test scores – have caused movement away from the very standards that could benefit students across the country.

The CCSS, developed with hundreds of educators nationwide, provide a foundation for college and career readiness. In the view of many teachers, the CCSS represent a significant effort to level the playing field for U.S. students, improve U.S. educational programs to be on par with those of other nations, and prepare students to enter a competitive job market.

As a teacher on a small barrier island in southern New Jersey, I faced an annual influx of new students in October and an outflow of students in May: families rented properties in winter and left before the summer months – and rent increases – kicked in. This ever-changing student population – which continues today – created difficulties in the classroom, as students arrived before their records and came or went without warning. With the constant flux of students, faculty struggled to learn what new students knew or where they fit within the New Jersey curriculum, which varies slightly even from neighboring states.

Today, with students moving across the country almost as often as across state lines, the dilemma of integrating students into a new school with a different curriculum is vastly multiplied. Setting high and rigorous standards, like the CCSS, to which states adhere benefits students – and that is our most important concern.

Kentucky is an excellent example of a state that rationally approached implementation of the CCSS. Chief State School Officer Terry Holliday thoughtfully implemented an education campaign around the standards. Working with educators, his team developed message points and provided meaningful information about the standards to teachers, parents, students, and the business community. The team also educated stakeholders about the coming changes and warned that, as a result of the new, more stringent standards, test scores might fall.

Parents in the state worked with educators and the business community to distribute information about the CCSS, the impact that shifting to more rigorous standards would have on schoolwork and test results, and how parents could support their children in making this transition. As a result of this coordinated effort, there was a relatively smooth transition to the CCSS in Kentucky.

But this smooth transition was not the experience of some other jurisdictions, which include forty-five states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Territories, and the Department of Defense Education Association.

Currently, there has been a backslide away from the CCSS, with states like Indiana repudiating the standards in favor of developing their own state standards. In other states – Florida, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Louisiana, for example – similar movements have taken place or are being considered. Even national organizations, formerly enthusiastic supporters of the standards, are calling for an implementation slowdown.

The recent pushback is partly due to the addition of more components to implementing the CCSS. The first addition – a “+1” to the standards – is the adoption of assessments that measure students’ knowledge of CCSS material, prior to fully developing and training teachers on curricula that are based on the CCSS. The second addition – or another +1 – is the use of these test scores to evaluate educators.

These two additional initiatives have conflated the complexity of implementing the rigorous CCSS with testing and evaluation, thereby causing the standards to become the focus of attack on numerous fronts. In this case, 1 (the standards) +1 (assessment of those standards before full implementation) +1 (use of test scores in educator evaluation) does not add up to a solution that is best for students because the timing is so off.

Had teachers been given time to unpack the CCSS, develop curricula around them, create professional learning courses to help others adapt to them, and plan with and learn from colleagues to implement them – before rushing to test and evaluate students and teachers based on the CCSS – the backslide away from the CCSS that the nation is currently experiencing may not have occurred. Indeed, a recent study, which surveyed over 400 teachers in 2013 on their preparedness to teach to the CCSS, indicated that the majority of teachers had received some training, but did not yet believe they were fully prepared to use the CCSS in the classroom.

Demanding that teachers implement the CCSS while building curricula at the state or district levels, developing and piloting tests of the standards, and then using the results of these tests for newly created evaluation purposes has resulted in an enormous boondoggle that threatens the standards themselves.

The problem began when the U.S. Department of Education included adoption of the CCSS in Race to the Top,  which awarded states with federal funding for making certain educational reforms, and then included an aggressive timeline for implementing the new tests and teacher evaluations significantly based on student test scores. Notably, the tests had yet to be developed or evaluated prior to this push for implementing all three components. To be clear, the federal Department of Education did not require states to adopt the standards or the assessments or to include assessment data in evaluation. However, a state was more likely to obtain federal funding if it participated in these initiatives.

I spent twelve years at the Educational Testing Service, and one of the first things that a testing specialist learns is that tests are designed for specific purposes and are validated for specific purposes. To use a test for a purpose for which it has not been validated is not valid – nor is it fair. While the use of test scores to measure student and teacher success, as one of multiple measures, has been validated by studies like the Measures of Effective Teaching studies conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the use of these particular assessments created to test the CCSS for this purpose has not.

Numerous organizations that support the CCSS, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers, are now suggesting slowing down implementation of the CCSS – allowing more time for educators, parents, communities, and students to prepare and adapt before moving into consequential testing and teacher evaluation.

At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult for educators, legislators, and other groups to separate the standards themselves from the testing and evaluation that comes with them. As a result of these difficulties and some political opportunism, more states are moving away from the CCSS’s high and rigorous standards – a result that is not good for students.

Many teachers, including me, are highly supportive of the CCSS. These standards are needed. I believe in testing those standards; and I strongly believe in, and want, actionable feedback based on multiple measures. But trying to implement all three of these things at the same time has not served well the most important constituency – our students.

Had the CCSS been implemented on its own, with appropriate time for the construction of curriculum, supporting materials, and training, many of the current issues would not have emerged. This has been a prime example of 1+1+1 simply not adding up to what is best for our nation’s students.

Katherine Bassett

Katherine Bassett is the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year 2000 and Executive Director and CEO of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). 

The views expressed here are the author’s own and are not representative of any organization or entity.