Seven challenges to getting the Common Core tests right

Credit: Steve CohnMorgan PolikoffCredit: Steve CohnMorgan PolikoffMorgan Polikoff / commentaryMay 1, 2014The rollout of the Common Core standards offers California – and most of the nation – an opportunity to address some of the issues that have plagued education reform in the past. Foremost among these issues is the generally poor quality of state assessments of student achievement and a resulting negative effect on instruction.
State tests in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era tended to be: a) highly procedural, ignoring the conceptual skills in the standards, b) heavily or exclusively multiple-choice, and c) predictable in their coverage of a narrow slice of content in the standards. These features undoubtedly contributed to the narrowing effects of the NCLB law, leading teachers to spend substantial time in test preparation and focus heavily on English and math at the expense of other subjects.
California’s new assessments will come from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two federally funded consortia designed to measure student mastery of the Common Core. While there are promising signs about these new assessments, they also present several challenges. In a recent report for the Center for American Progress, I laid out seven of the most important challenges that must be addressed if the new assessments are to live up to their promise and support effective standards implementation.
The first challenge is making the case for and standing firm on higher definitions of proficiency. One of the goals of Common Core is to set more accurate definitions of proficiency so that, for instance, “proficient” students can enroll in college without remediation. Setting a higher target means that more students will be labeled as below proficient. As we have seen in New York, lower rates of student proficiency than parents and educators were used to seeing under the former state standards can sometimes produce political blowback. Making the case for the new, more rigorous targets, perhaps with public-service announcements, op-eds and targeted mailings to parents and educators, may help reduce backlash.
The second challenge is meeting the technological needs of new assessments. The consortium has guidelines in terms of the technology needed to take new computer-adaptive assessments. These technology upgrades will be somewhat costly at first, though perhaps not compared to total K-12 spending. Schools and districts should embrace this requirement by making thoughtful purchases that can be used for other instructional purposes besides assessment.
The third challenge is scoring new test items that move beyond multiple choice to ask students to compose answers to complex or real-world problems. The new item types are essential to improving the quality of the assessments, yet scoring them can be difficult. Getting reliable scores from human raters is expensive and time-consuming, and the technology has not yet advanced sufficiently to allow for computer scoring of nuanced writing elements.
The fourth challenge is ensuring the tests truly cover the full range of content in the standards. As mentioned above, this was not the case with prior tests. To meet this challenge, the consortia will need to construct quality items for both hard-to-assess skills and for more advanced levels of cognitive demand (i.e., moving beyond memorization and procedures to application and generalization). Again, constructed response items that ask students to analyze or solve complex problems will be essential here.
The fifth challenge is in minimizing the testing time burden. There is clearly a growing movement against the amount of testing in schools. The new assessments will take somewhat more time than the old ones, largely because they’ll measure more complex skills. Educators and policymakers should make the case to the public and to parents for the value of higher-quality tests that provide feedback on a wider range of student skills. Districts have a role to play on testing time as well – they should evaluate all their testing activities and reduce or eliminate those that are not essential.
The sixth challenge is validating the assessments for new uses for school and teacher accountability. This is less of an issue in California than other states, because California has resisted the federal push for stricter teacher evaluation. Given the many questions about new teacher evaluation systems being rolled out in other states, this appears to have been a prudent move. In the long term, teacher evaluation can clearly be improved, but there is little sense in rushing untested reforms during Common Core rollout. Nevertheless, all decisions made using test data need clear, appropriate validity arguments.
The seventh challenge is managing the rollout of the new tests alongside other new policies that are happening simultaneously. In California, the two most important K-12 policies happening now are Local Control Funding and the Common Core implementation. Given the potential blowback resulting from the new assessments, state policy leaders should err on the side of caution when using assessment results to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers or schools in the early years of new tests. This will allow the new policies to be implemented and mature more carefully.
This is far from a comprehensive list of issues (for instance, I did not mention the challenge of accommodating students with disabilities and English learners on the new tests), but it should give food for thought to policymakers. More detail on these issues, as well as concrete suggestions for policy and practice, can be found in the full report.
Regardless of one’s stance on the Common Core, all can agree that, if we are going to have strong common standards, it is essential that we get implementation right. Focusing on assessment quality and these seven issues is a good place to start.

Morgan Polikoff is an assistant professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education. He studies standards, assessment and accountability policies.
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