Common Core: Put to the Test



State legislatures have become ground zero for the new Common Core education standards.

By Michelle Exstrom and Dan Thatcher

Common Core State Standards. This term has become a flash point for lawmakers across the country as they debate whether establishing common English and math standards is in the best interests of their state.

Many legislatures held special hearings, in and out of official session times, to vet the standards. In 27 states, legislators introduced bills to halt or replace the Common Core State Standards, and they passed in five: Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Indiana officials, at the direction of the legislature, have already developed their own new standards in time for this school year. (Many acknowledge they look very similar to the Common Core standards.) Missouri lawmakers voted to take more time to study the common standards and their potential impact in the classroom, while their counterparts in North Carolina created a committee to recommend changes or modifications to the standards.

The legislation passed in Oklahoma directs the state to revert to the standards in place prior to adopting Common Core until new standards are ready for the 2016-17 school year. Teachers in South Carolina will continue using Common Core standards to guide their classroom instruction until new state-developed ones are ready to go next year, according to legislation passed there.

State standards define what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school and move on to college or a career. In 2009, when the idea of using a new set of common English and math standards was first introduced to the states, it was roundly supported by business executives, parents, teachers and state education leaders from both sides of the aisle who shared the common concern that U.S. students were slipping behind the rest of the world, reflected in international comparisons.

To push all students to become more competitive in academics and their future workplaces, they welcomed the idea of the Common Core State Standards being promoted by the nation’s governors and education commissioners.

Between 2010 and 2011, 45 states, five territories and the District of Columbia eventually adopted the common standards and began working with districts and teachers to implement them.

Old Debate, New Venue

So what happened? Why have the Common Core English Language Arts and math standards become political fodder? Controversy swirls around their development, where the funding came from, what’s really in the standards, and what role the U.S. Department of Education has played in persuading states to participate.

Those who are suspicious of the standards have found allies in some parents, teachers and school administrators who were already weary of reform after reform. As legislators began to receive more phone calls and emails, it became clear to them that many of their constituents held concerns that this approach might not be the best one for their state.

Why are state legislators just now debating the merits of using these benchmarks? Some lawmakers say the answer is simple: No one asked them if this was a good idea.

In most states, the standards were never vetted during the legislative process, so neither were the public’s concerns. This year, however, many leaders opened the debate, soliciting viewpoints from various sides about the promises and challenges of the new standards. Idaho Senator John Goedde (R), for instance, felt it was time to discuss and debate the issues in the public arena during legislative hearings.

That way, “both sides can have time to make their arguments, [state education] officials and the state board can explain their decisions, and the actual text of the standards can be read into the record so that everyone is aware of what’s in them,” he says. “It’s an important step to clear the air.”

What’s the result of all this debate? Legislators in 27 states ultimately introduced 70 bills to limit, delay or revoke implementing the standards in 2014. Of these bills, five became law. In addition, legislatures in a dozen states have changed how future education standards are adopted by requiring greater legislative and public input into the adoption process.

Standards are nothing new for states; the process for adopting them was established years ago. And in most states, the board of education or the chief state school officer usually performs the official role of writing or adopting standards, not the legislature. So, when the adoption of Common Core Standards came up, legislatures most often played no official role.

“Legislators want their voices heard in this debate. In most states, legislators were bypassed in the adoption process,” says Alaska Representative Lynn Gattis (R). “We have a responsibility to make sure that our students are getting what they need, and we are accountable to parents and to the public.” That’s one reason lawmakers and education officials in her state decided they could set the standards and guidelines for their students themselves. Alaska was one of four states that said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the standards from the start.

Mixed Results so Far

Despite all the attention to the political wrangling in the legislatures, most states are quietly going about the business of implementing the new standards. In fact, nearly 300 bills were introduced this year specifically addressing the issues surrounding the implementation of the standards. That’s nearly four times more than the number to limit, delay or revoke the standards.

This work can be challenging. New tests must be developed to determine whether the new standards are truly preparing students better for college or a career. Teacher preparation programs must find new ways to train teachers so they understand and are equipped to meet the new expectations. Teachers already in the classroom must fully understand the new standards to be able to develop different instructional approaches to teaching the concepts contained in them.

 And everyone—students, parents, teachers, education officials and business leaders—must be prepared to see test scores dramatically drop as new assessments measure students’ learning against the new and, in most cases, higher standards.

“Legislators want and need to know how the students in their states are performing. Our previous tests obviously weren’t giving us that information,” says Utah Senator Howard Stephenson (R). “We were led to believe that 90 percent of our students were proficient in English and Language Arts only to find out from NAEP that 36 percent were proficient. We need good, honest data so we can make good policy decisions.”

Kentucky’s the Front Runner

In 2010, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, and its legislature jumped right in. Lawmakers already had passed legislation in 2009 directing the state to adopt college- and career-ready standards and to put in place the infrastructure necessary to support their use. So when the Common Core standards were released, they easily fit into the state’s established plan. The state and local departments of education had begun creating plans to ensure that all teachers would receive the training and support they needed to put the new standards in place. Kentucky adopted a new statewide, annual test and has weathered the storm of lower test scores by communicating early to parents this unavoidable consequence of raising the bar.

Teachers in Kentucky are seeing benefits already. The Common Core standards require them to move away from the traditional, teacher-centered classroom to a more learner-centered environment. For many teachers, this is an exciting change. Because so many teachers across the country will be teaching the same standards, a wealth of new curriculum and instructional tools have sprung up, including online learning communities. Teachers in Kentucky and elsewhere have been able to share experiences and help each other with instructional challenges as they encounter them.

 “What’s exciting to me is that with Common Core, l can move away from teaching rote skills such as memorizing specific steps to solving specific problems to a more learner-centered approach that embeds mathematical practices such as modeling and constructing viable arguments into all my instruction,” says Alison Wright, a high school math teacher in Lexington, Ky.

“With Common Core, I have the opportunity to focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ behind mathematics, providing students opportunities to make sense of and to create their own understanding of how things work through mathematical discourse.”

Rough Road in Other Places

In many states, however, the transition hasn’t been as smooth as it was in Kentucky. New York has encountered significant challenges and backlash from the educational community over how quickly the state converted to the new standards. Teachers have complained that they have not been adequately prepared, leading the state’s teachers’ union to withdraw its support of the new effort. Legislators, too, have voiced their concern about how the standards were adopted. Assemblywoman Catherine T. Nolan (D) told The New York Times in February, “There are days I think, ‘Oh my God, we have to slow this thing down, there are so many problems.’”

Timing and a lack of strategy appear to have contributed to the problem. Media coverage is filled with accounts of parents complaining that New York school officials weren’t communicating with them or their children about the higher expectations and new tests. Indeed, the state pushed forward with testing students on the new standards in the midst of this criticism and confusion, and test scores plummeted in the past school year.

Critics point to those test scores as proof that students and teachers weren’t adequately prepared. The teachers’ union, too, has worked to ensure that the lower test scores won’t directly affect teacher evaluations and, ultimately, hiring and firing decisions.

“I am sure it won’t come as a surprise to hear that in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched,” says Dennis Van Roekel, president of National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union. “In any state that is field-testing and validating new assessments, there must be a moratorium on using the results of the new assessments for accountability purposes until at least the 2015-2016 school year. In the meantime, states still have other ways to measure student learning during this transition period—other assessments, report cards and student portfolios.”

Kentucky and New York have had very different experiences with the standards, but most of the other 43 states are somewhere in between, working to reap the benefits while struggling to mitigate the challenges.

“Strong common standards in core subjects establish a uniform performance expectation—and that’s important to ensuring equity for all students,” says Washington Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos (D).

“The new standards should be used for improving instruction and the system overall. But we must think carefully about how we use new assessments based on the Common Core standards for accountability.”

Testing’s at the Core

For years, many education experts, college administrators, parents and teachers have clamored for better instruments to measure whether students are ready to succeed in today’s world. Next-generation assessments, as they are called, seek to do just that: measure students’ mastery of core academic content as well as their ability to communicate, reason, analyze and synthesize data, make complex inferences, and develop strategies to solve complex problems.

Widespread state adoption of Common Core State Standards presented an opportunity for states to collaborate in developing next-generation assessments. What’s more, if states administer assessments on the common standards similarly, they could provide valid and reliable data for regional and national comparisons.

In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Education fueled the development of next-generation assessments by awarding two consortia of states a total of $330 million in federal Race to the Top funds to develop the new assessments. Combined, the two winning consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, initially boasted the participation of 44 states and the District of Columbia as either governing or advisory members. Full-member states agreed to administer their consortium’s statewide English and math tests in grades three through eight and one year in high school, beginning in spring 2015.

Since 2011, legislators have weighed whether to move forward with their original commitment to the consortia or to select from one of the burgeoning vendors offering Common Core assessments. Cost is always of paramount concern. If a state selects an alternative vendor, it may need to pay some additional up-front costs for developing specific items needed in the assessments.

Other questions relate to the quality of a vendor’s assessment system compared to the consortia’s systems, and whether these assessments, in general, will provide the best measurement to date of students’ college- and career-readiness.

“Assessments are important for measuring the success of the new standards,” says Washington Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos (D). But they should not be used to punish students and teachers. We must be cautious and thoughtful about implementing the new assessments and using them for accountability.”

The discussion heated up this year as the deadline for implementation of the new assessments drew near. The U.S. Department of Education imposed a firm deadline on states that received a waiver from certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act to assess students’ college- and career-readiness in the 2014-2015 school year. States opting to administer an evaluation different from the ones offered by the two consortia must have it ready to go by next spring or work out an alternative time line with the U.S. Department of Education.

Michelle Exstrom is a program director and Daniel Thatcher is a senior policy specialist In the NCSL Education Department.

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