Common Core Controversy: Aligned Assessments

The Common Core-aligned assessments have been a lightning rod for Common Core controversy. Across the country, thousands of frustrated families have refused to allow their children to take core-aligned assessments. Opt Out movements, grassroots actions designed to support, encourage and inform people who are concerned about the tests, exist in Illinois, New York, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Alabama and other states.

“Unprecedented” numbers of people are loudly debating the merits of the assessments – and official testing of students’ mastery of the Common Core State Standards hasn’t even started yet.

What’s going on?

First, some background. The Common Core State Standards were officially released to the public in 2010, after more than a year and a half of development and feedback by education policymakers, state school officers, education researchers, school administrators, educators and parents.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education also awarded Race to the Top grant money to two consortia to develop assessments aligned to the new standards.

The thinking? If schools are going to teach new standards, schools need assessments that can accurately measure how students are doing in their efforts to master the standards. And because the new standards featured more “doing” – more critical thinking, more problem-solving and an emphasis on the problem-solving process – tests that could measure these skills would be needed. The old “fill in the bubble” multiple choice-type tests would no longer be enough.

Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) were the two consortia. States that adopted the core joined one (or in some cases, both) consortia. The idea was to make sure that the assessments met the needs of member states.

When states began adopting and implementing the Common Core State Standards in 2010, the plan was to officially begin formal assessment of student mastery of the standards in the 2014-2015 school year. Some states, eager to measure students’ progress toward the new standards, began administering Common Core-aligned assessments and/or tests that included Common Core-aligned questions in 2012, before either consortium had finished developing their assessments.

In Kentucky, an early adopter state, as predicted, fewer students achieved proficiency on the new tests. In New York, an emphasis on testing – and a link between student test scores and teacher evaluations – infuriated many parents and educators; in spring 2014, New York parents led Opt Out demonstrations that were widely covered in the press.

States withdraw from consortia

Since 2013, a number of states have withdrawn from Smarter Balanced and PARCC. Some say they will use Common Core-aligned assessments designed by other providers. Some are reconsidering the Common Core State Standards altogether.

Meanwhile, Smarter Balanced and PARCC have completed field testing of their assessments and tweaked them accordingly, based on the feedback of students and educators after over 5 million students took trial tests. In 2014-2015, for the first time, states and schools that adopted the Common Core standards will assess all public school students using CCSS-aligned assessments.

What are the key areas in dispute?

Point of contention #1

One view: Assessments don’t help students

Jeanette Deutermann speaks at a New York rally.
Jeanette Deutermann

Jeanette Deutermann, a parent from Bellmore, New York, and founder of the Long Island Opt Out group, believes the CCSS-aligned assessments are more harmful than helpful to children. She became involved in the Opt Out movement after her oldest son, then a fourth-grader, brought home a note inviting him to attend a Sunrise Academy at his school, an hour before the start of school, two days a week. The purpose of the academy, she said, was to better prepare the students for the upcoming core-aligned assessments, and the stress was just too much for her child.

“When I told my son that they wanted him to come in early to do more test prep, he completely melted down. He lay on the floor crying. And right then and there, I said to him, ‘Get up. Stop crying. You’re not even going to take the test, so don’t worry about it,’” Deutermann says.

At the time, Deutermann didn’t even know if it was legal to refuse the test. But as a parent, there was no way she was going to put her child through an experience that clearly traumatized him – especially after she learned that student scores don’t directly affect the students.

“This isn’t going on his transcripts. It doesn’t determine what middle schools he gets into. This test really has nothing to do with him,” says Deutermann, who learned that schools were emphasizing test prep because the schools and teachers would be judged on student results. (In some states, including New York, teacher evaluations – which may be linked to pay and employment decisions – take into consideration students’ test scores.)

Another view: Assessments provide essential feedback

Susan Gendron, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education
Susan Gendron

But while it’s true that core-aligned assessment scores don’t directly affect a student’s education or educational options, experienced educator Susan Gendron says the assessments will provide teachers with essential feedback that will allow them to tweak instruction to better help students progress toward mastery of the standards.

“One of the goals of the assessment consortia was to give teachers actionable data,” says Gendron, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education and a former policy coordinator for Smarter Balanced. “To do that, we had to change the type of questions we ask kids and how we administer the test.” Because the assessments will now be administered digitally, teachers should have test results back in two to three weeks, instead of six to eight weeks, giving teachers time to adapt instruction to students’ needs.

On the CCSS-aligned tests, students will be required, in many cases, to show their work and problem-solving process; they can earn points for their process, even if the final answer isn’t correct. That kind of feedback is essential for both students and teachers, Gendron says. It helps teachers pinpoint what students know and what they don’t, so they can design lessons to help students do better in the future.

There is no clear consensus as the possible consequences of opting out. In some states, education leaders are telling parents it’s illegal to opt out of the tests, while other states have confirmed parents’ rights to decide whether or not their children take the assessments. Some states worry they will lose educational funding if too many students opt out of the exams, but no one seems to know for sure what the financial hit, if any, would be to schools or school districts.

Point of contention #2 

One view: The assessments help education

The CCSS-aligned assessments grew out of a desire to better prepare students for life in the 21st century.

“The reason we moved toward Common Core, towards higher standards, was because we as a country are losing our place in attracting business and in having a skilled workforce,” Gendron says.

Research and numerous international surveys showed that United States students consistently perform worse than their international peers on measures of reading and mathematics achievement, and that employers are requiring critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills that most U.S. students lack. Common Core was designed to build those skills in students – and the Common Core-aligned assessments were intended to measure student growth toward those skills.

“The kinds of things students are asked to do on the assessments are the kinds of things we learned, from businesses, that kids need to be able to do in order to be employed,” Gendron says.

Another view: Assessments are harmful to education

But those who oppose CCSS assessments say the very existence of the tests has perverted education. “It’s one thing to challenge a child. It’s another thing to needlessly frustrate them,” says Deutermann, who also worries about the things that are being cut out of education – things like play centers in kindergarten and recess in elementary school – as schools focus on test-prep.

Point of agreement: The assessments are not the problem

One view: Common Core is the problem

“I used to say I don’t have a problem with the Common Core standards, that I have a problem with what they’re doing with the standards,” Deutermann says. “But when I really started looking at all the standards, I realized the standards aren’t really appropriate either. What used to be a second-grade standard is now a first-grade standard. Why is that? What’s the point of making first-graders do second-grade work? And what’s the cost of that?”

Opting out of CCSS-aligned assessments is “parents’ way of saying ‘we told you what we expect you to do to fix this. If you will not take action, then we will no longer participate in these reforms,’” says Deutermann, who views the Opt Out movement as a tool to help “parents and teachers effectively get their classrooms back under their control.” The message she and others want to send to education officials is: “These reforms have officially failed and need to be changed.”

Another view: Flawed implementation is the problem

Gendron believes objections to the CCSS-aligned assessments have less to do with the assessments than with botched implementation. “What happened in New York was regrettable. They embedded Common Core-like items in the Regents Exams, and they hadn’t been transparent about what they were going to do.”

Schools that are emphasizing test prep – via Sunrise Academies or other means – are missing the point of Common Core, Gendron says. “Situations like that are causing a lot of damage. If you have high expectations, you create learning environments that are highly engaging and have opportunities for kids to really explore. Kids don’t need to come in an hour earlier. When we focus on the test, the kids are suffering, because we’re not looking at a rich learning experience anymore.”

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work atwww.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

Learn More: Click to view related resources.