Standards and Assessments for College and Career

By Michelle Exstrom | Vol . 23, No. 22 | June 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Forty-four states are implementing the Common Core State Standards, and six states adopted their own standards.
  • Most states belong to one of two main consortia—PARCC and Smarter Balanced—that are developing assessments for college- and career-ready standards.
  • Nearly 700 bills addressing education standards and assessments were introduced in state legislatures in 2015.

During the past five years, nearly all states have adopted a new set of state education standards that are meant to ensure that students are ready for either college or a career after high school. Most states—44—are implementing the Common Core State Standards, a set of math and English language arts standards developed in 2010 that are comparable to those used by higher-performing countries. These standards were designed to ensure that all students not only know academic content, but also have the skills to apply what they learn to real-world situations. Six states—Alaska, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia—adopted their own unique “college- and career-ready” standards.

Whether to use Common Core State Standards or a state’s own unique standards has been a hotly contested debate across the country. Proponents of Common Core argue that these more rigorous, universal standards will ensure that all students are prepared for life after high school, regardless of where they live. Opponents argue that the standards themselves are problematic and that states should create their own unique expectations for college and career readiness.

While the decision about which education standards to use traditionally is made by state boards of education or the chief state school officer, many legislators became frustrated that they did not have the opportunity to provide input into whether Common Core should be adopted in their state. Some lawmakers also assert that the U.S. Department of Education inappropriately provides incentives, such as additional funding and waivers, that allow states flexibility in meeting federal requirements if they adopt the Common Core State Standards. As a result, state legislators have considered a significant number of bills related to the adoption, implementation or repeal of the standards over the past few years.

States also have been adopting new assessments that are better aligned with what students should know and be able to demonstrate, with a goal of providing a more accurate picture of whether students are truly ready for college and career. Nearly all states have changed their assessments during the past few years, with most premiering in spring 2015.

Federal Action

The U.S. Department of Education provided funding to two consortia of states to develop new assessments for college- and career-ready standards in math and English language arts, the results of which can be compared across states and regions. The consortia are known as PARCC and Smarter Balanced. Most states belong to one of the consortia; however, some states have decided to not participate and instead use another vendor or created their own.

State Action

The debates about standards and assessments continued during the 2015 legislative sessions. As of mid-May, NCSL identified almost 700 bills that address college and career readiness standards, nearly twice the number introduced in 2014. Forty-seven bills in 21 states would halt implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Forty-four bills in 21 states would prohibit using the PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessments. Forty-one bills in 23 states give parents the authority to allow their children to opt out of annual statewide assessments. The majority of this legislation did not pass, and most states are moving forward to implement their new standards and assessments.

State assessments were among the hottest issues in education in 2015. Of the nearly 700 bills NCSL tracked, 575 were related to assessment issues, up sharply from 2014. State legislators most commonly considered implementing the new assessments, but also looked at retracting their participation in the testing consortium, and providing flexibility and opt-out privileges to districts, schools and students.

Colorado and Tennessee were two states where significant legislative action occurred. Colorado lawmakers heavily debated whether districts and students should be allowed to opt out of testing, and if annual statewide testing requirements should be scaled back. During the last days of the session, a compromise was struck, and the legislature enacted HB 1323, which scales back testing at all levels, including early reading assessments in kindergarten through grade three. It also retains the annual statewide PARCC English language arts and math assessment for grades three through eight, adjusts high school assessments, and requires less frequent testing in science and social studies. Students and parents will not be penalized for opting out of required assessments, and schools and districts will not be held accountable for test scores or measuring teacher performance for the 2015-2016 school year.

In Tennessee, the legislature passed HB 1035, which establishes a legislatively mandated process whereby two committees—one for English language arts standards and another for math standards— will review and develop standards to replace the Common Core standards. The new standards must be adopted and fully implemented in Tennessee public schools in the 2017-2018 school year.

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