Academic journal article Education Next

The Politics of the Common Core Assessments: Why States Are Quitting the PARCC and Smarter Balanced Testing Consortia

Academic journal article Education Next

The Politics of the Common Core Assessments: Why States Are Quitting the PARCC and Smarter Balanced Testing Consortia

Article excerpt

IN 2009, 48 states and the District of Columbia joined together to launch the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Their mission: to develop common academic standards in English and mathematics that would help ensure that "all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life."

It was a laudable goal, but one that 15 years of federal mandates had failed to accomplish. Tasked by the federal government with bringing all students to "proficiency," most states set undemanding standards, and the quality of their assessments varied widely. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association set out to raise and unify K-12 standards through the Common Core initiative.

Common standards call for common assessments. Late in 2009, the Obama administration, through its Race to the Top (RttT) program, announced a competition for $350 million in grant money to spur the development of "next-generation" tests aligned to the Common Core. Six consortia formed to submit applications for funding, but mergers left just two seeking to develop the new assessments. The government awarded four-year grants to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Earlier in 2009, also through Race to the Top, the administration had offered $4.35 billion in funding through a competitive grant program designed to encourage states to enact the feds' preferred school-reform policies--including the adoption of better standards and assessments. Most states were willing to sign on to Common Core and the aligned tests to improve their chances of winning a grant. By 2011, one year after the standards had officially been released, 45 states plus the District of Columbia had signed on to the standards and joined one or both of the assessment consortia.

But as states moved to implement the new standards and assessments, controversy began to swirl around the reforms. Although the Common Core standards drew criticism from parents and pundits, from the right and the left, most states stood firm in embracing them. Yet loyalty to the consortia's assessments has proved much weaker. The number of states planning to use the new tests dropped from 45 in 2011 to 20 in 2016.

This presents a puzzle: why have so many states abandoned the consortia, even as the standards on which they are based continue to live on in most places?

Consortia Beginnings

Proponents of the next-generation assessments argued that such tests would enable educators to track progress toward the higher-order thinking skills--such as critical thinking, communicating effectively, and problem solving--that the standards emphasized. By collaborating through a consortium, states would be able to produce a higher-quality assessment, at lower cost, than what they could achieve on their own. The Common Core-aligned tests would also allow policy-makers to use the same measuring stick to evaluate student progress in different states.

In 2010, the PARCC and SB AC consortia reported having 26 and 32 member states, respectively, representing diverse political environments. Only Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia declined to join by the end of that year. Alaska, whose state standards were closely aligned with the Common Core, affiliated with SB AC in 2013. Minnesota adopted only the English language arts standards and so did not join a consortium. Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia never adopted Common Core or affiliated with a consortium.

The two consortia took similar approaches to assessment design. Both sought to develop state-of-the-art assessments that focused on problem solving and the application of knowledge and moved away from former tests' reliance on multiple-choice questions and the testing of factual recall. The new tests would be administered by computer, reducing the time needed to evaluate results and thus enhancing the usefulness of this information for teachers and schools. …

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