Beyond the Bubble: Schools Get Ready for Common Core Assessments
By Tim Walker
Jessica Keigan, a teacher at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colorado, knows there will be big changes in the way she and her colleagues teach reading and math. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and all they bring—more rigorous content, new training, and new student assessments—are being rolled out across the country, creating an understandably high level of anticipation and anxiety. But Keigan, who is in her 10th year as an English teacher, is a self-described “optimist.”
“I feel the anxiety, too,” Keigan says. “These changes are overwhelming. But I have to tell you, I’ve had the most constructive, in-depth discussions with my colleagues about what we teach, how we teach, and how we should be assessing student learning—the best meetings I’ve had since I’ve been a teacher by a mile.”
Forty-five states have adopted the CCSS, which means for the first time there will be consistency among states in what students should know and be able to accomplish in the two core subject areas of English language arts and math. The purpose of the CCSS is to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, no matter where they live, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. (The National Education Association was one of many teacher groups that partnered the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers as they developed the standards. Find out more about NEA’s work with the Common Core.)
The higher learning that is required by Common Core isn’t compatible with the narrow, standardized multiple-choice tests that increased exponentially after No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law in January 2002. As a result, assessment systems will change, too.
“The new standards are bringing not only new rigor and creativity to teaching but also to assessments,” Keigan explains. “Our previous standards were vague, were little more than laundry lists, and [were] very hard to assess properly. I believe the Common Core standards are opening the door to something better.”
Fear of the Unknown
But what exactly is behind the door? While the days of bubble tests may be numbered and student assessments are being remapped to the Common Core, the design and implementation of these new exams is still largely a work in progress, despite the expectation that they will be implemented for the 2014 – 2015 school year.
Teachers may be relieved that dreaded multiple choice tests are being scuttled in favor of open-ended items that require more creativity and critical thinking on the part of the student. For many teachers, however, the implementation of the CCSS also means more of the same. According to a 2012 survey by the Northwest Evaluation Association, while 62 percent of administrators say they expect Common Core assessments will be “extremely” or “very” useful to their work, only 33 percent of teachers shared this sentiment. More than one in five teachers said these assessments will be “not very” or “not at all” useful. The report noted, however, that many respondents were probably projecting their distaste for NCLB-like summative assessments onto the Common Core.
Many teachers also believe the new systems will fix blame and disqualify teachers, instead of focusing on student growth. Other concerns include a nagging sense that the CCSS is just a fad, and that after the dust settles, the nation’s schools will soon be required to move onto the “next big thing.” All the arduous training will then be rendered more or less obsolete after a few years. In addition, many schools feel unprepared from a technical standpoint to administer new tests that will be delivered via computer.
Keigan and other educators stress that, despite a pervasive fear of the unknown, teachers can and are playing a proactive role in helping shape CCSS implementation and these new assessments so that they work better for students.
“Like everything else in education, teacher buy-in is essential, as is buy-in from parents and the community,” Keigan says. “All stakeholders have to believe that these assessments will be better and actually tell us something meaningful about student learning.”
The Next Generation of Assessments
Most education stakeholders say they’re not against all standardized tests but resent the many hours their students spend filling in multiple-choice bubbles and the wide-ranging consequence that poor scores can carry. An added frustration is a lack of clarity on what these tests are designed to measure. Often, the tests aren’t aligned to the curriculum or instruction and results aren’t provided in enough time to supply useful information for educators or students.
The National Education Association believes well-designed assessment systems do have a critical role in student success, but that schools should use assessments to help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve their practice and provide extra help to the students who need it.
“The overuse of standardized tests for high-stakes decisions has shortchanged students, teachers, and our education system in too many ways for far too long,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We’ve lost sight of the reason tests were designed: to help gauge students’ comprehension and progress.”
To that end, teachers must have the ability and opportunity to help design curriculum and lessons tied to the Common Core, and be able share their expertise in developing new assessment systems that make sense to students, parents, educators, and communities.
In 2010, two consortia of states were awarded federal Race-to-the-Top money to develop a new set of assessments that will be tied to the Common Core standards scheduled for implementation during the 2014 – 2015 school year. Both groups—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—plan to administer these new exams primarily on computers, and both aim to minimize multiple-choice questions in favor of open-ended problems requiring creativity and critical thinking. Both groups also plan to develop materials for teachers to show how the material on the assessments can be taught over the course of the school year, and they will create items that can be used formatively in classrooms. The PARCC consortium consists of 23 states, and the Virgin Islands. Twenty-seven states belong to SBAC.
Although tests won’t be ready for another 18 months, Common Core state standards are already being implemented, which leaves teachers in a bit of a lurch. In addition, states are scrambling to get up to speed on the technology that is required to administer the exams, including computers that have at least 1 gigabyte of computer memory, a screen display size of 9.5 inches or greater, and access to the Internet—specifications issued by PARCC.
Yet, teachers are slowly and steadily getting more information on how the new tests may look. In August, the PARCC consortia released a preview of sample test items.
Chuck Pack, a math teacher in Tahlequah, Oklahoma was encouraged that the new assessments will facilitate a deeper, more rigorous treatment of the curriculum.
He explains that the questions will push educators to teach at a higher level because many of the questions address multiple subjects at once. In the past, topics were taught in a vacuum and questions only tested one standard at a time.
“We’re talking about some fairly rigorous questions,” Pack says. “Students are going to be challenged, but in a way that is truly relevant to what they should be learning. This is a big change for my state and probably the country.”
Still, Pack concedes that “the process is going slower than what educators would like.”
As a teacher-leader for PARCC, Pack communicates with educators across the state to help them gain a better understanding of the consortium’s work and the inevitable effect it will have on their classrooms.
Pack acknowledges that the potential power of the new assessments could be squandered unless teachers have the training to use assessment data effectively and teach in ways that will lead to higher student achievement.
The professional development related to the standards can be addressed partly through the involvement of teachers in the determination of curriculum and new assessments. If they are to succeed in teaching students to achieve the standards, teachers also need opportunities to share ideas as they examine student work and responses on assessments.
Jessica Keigan is a member of the Colorado Content Collaborative. Created by the Colorado Department of Education, the collaborative is a way for educators to become involved with state and national experts in the creation and establishment of first-rate resources so that all Colorado educators have the latest and most effective tools and professional development.
One of the assigned tasks for the 75 educators selected in early 2012 was to determine whether assessments were fair, valid, and reliable measures of student learning. They were also tasked with building out an “assessment resource bank.”
Keigan is a passionate advocate for strong teacher voices in any “reform” process.
“The best model for setting and implementing policy is one where those who spend the most time in direct contact with students have the most say,” Keigan says. “I think we’re moving from a top-down approach to education reform, particularly as it relates to these new standards and assessments. In Colorado, things are in a state of flux, but I’m very hopeful.”
“It’s not as if the process isn’t messy, because it is,” Chuck Pack says. “There are serious time constraints and training for teachers has to be ramped up. But at the end of the day, teachers are going to find that their classes are more creative, and they will have greater flexibility as educators. Most important of all, the nation is going to have better students.”