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Common Core influence swings testing pendulum

There’s an old saying in education that when changes happen it’s like a pendulum swinging; things go from one extreme to the other. How much testing given to students is a current prime example of the back and forth. Testing, especially at the elementary level, was scarce prior to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But in the last decade the combination of federally mandated tests and schools’ new and sudden focus on data-driven curriculum decisions have left students, parents, teachers and the public assessment weary.

So what seems to be the answer? Find some middle ground that can ensure accountability but keep the community from burning out? That’s not how a pendulum swings.

The backlash over being over-tested is well documented. Even President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have complained that there is an excess of testing. A bill passed the Ohio House of Representatives that would limit the amount of time students spend on testing in the Buckeye State. Google “too much testing in schools” and the results span the political and educational spectrum.

The pendulum is swinging back. But this time there is a new hand that providing the impetus: Common Core.

Recent efforts to reduce testing that have been reported in Education Week document the influence Common Core state standards are having in reducing the number of assessments districts are administering. Some schools in New Jersey are eliminating midterm and final exams. And they are doing it because “they view the state’s new standardized tests—the PARCC exams (Common Core-based state testing)—as more time-consuming, and they want to cut back before those are given.”

That may seem an isolated occurrence, but according to this article, it shows just how widespread and organized the effort is to restrict district-based tests in order to focus on new statewide tests aligned with Common Core state standards. Two Washington-based school leader groups, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools (which represents 67 big-city school districts) are going to “review the array of state and district tests being administered in public schools, report their findings, and work to eliminate redundant assessments.”

Are we to be surprised that Common Core has now spread to control testing? It was only a matter of time until the combination of Common Core and the two partner testing consortia (PARCC and Smarter Balance) would dominate the testing landscape.

Welcome to trickle-down education. What started as a de facto federal mandate for states to adopt Common Core’s uniform national standards is now swelling into a big-brother control of how often districts test students and swinging the pendulum in the process.

Even though these specific efforts haven’t seeped into Kansas yet, recent local and national events could put the entire testing issue in flux in the Sunflower state. Last March, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that an adequate education in this state is to be measured against the Rose standards, a much broader and less specific set of criteria than Common Core. The potential problem became evident when several Kansas superintendents testified before the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission that they didn’t know how to operationalize Rose standards for measurement purposes. Clearly, the potential is there for additional testing with a new layer of standards. At the very least it sets up the strong potential for districts being forced to serve two masters – Common Core and Rose. And regardless of KSDE’s efforts to meld the two, attempting to force Rose and Common Core standards onto two sides of the same coin are misguided and serve neither kids nor  the two standards regimes.

However, the newly Republican controlled Congress is ready to advance a long overdue reauthorization of NCLB which could impact requisite testing. A recent Politico article described the bi-partisan support that exists for an update to the 2002 NCLB law. Not surprisingly, one of the sticking points regards testing. The strange bedfellows of congressional Republicans and teachers’ unions would like to see annual testing eased, while congressional Democrats tend to want to see a continuation of annual testing. One potential change reported by Education Week is a Republican push to test students every two years.

How all this will play out is anybody’s guess, but the fundamental issue doesn’t change. Assessments, both formative and summative, should be primarily in the hands of local school districts, with collaboration with the state to find a happy medium for testing purposes.

Sure, too much testing takes away from instructional time and other aspects of the educational experience, but like it or not, testing is a necessity. Teachers need data (especially derived from formative assessments) to help make better curriculum decisions (e.g. lesson reteach and differentiation) in their classrooms. Districts need testing results to help judge effectiveness of teachers. States need testing results to assess whether standards are being met. And the most important group – students – needs testing data to know what they are learning.  Somehow, the positive impact testing can have on student achievement is always left out of the discussion.

And taxpayers need testing to ensure accountability.

Ultimately, assessment decisions should be made in light of how they will help improve student learning, not how it fits within the scope of what amounts to a federal mandate: Common Core standards. The efforts by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools only work to support the heavy hand of federal government interference in local education.

If education is to continue the tradition of pendulum swinging decisions, let’s sway it back by eliminating the ever-expanding control of Common Core standards.