Massachusetts abandons Common Core tests

Massachusetts will redesign its state exam instead of using PARCC’s Common Core tests, the state board of education has decided. The new MCAS will be aligned with Common Core standards, say officials.

“Only 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, are currently scheduled to continue with PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests aligned with Common Core standards,” reports Molly Jackson for the Christian Science Monitor.

High-scoring Massachusetts “was considered a crucial supporter for Common Core tests and now, a crucial breakaway,” writes Jackson.

The Common Core was supposed to allow state-to-state comparisons, but states are “tweaking the language used to report results” so that “a score that counted as ‘approaching expectations’ in one part of the country might be labeled ‘proficient‘ somewhere else.”

“It may be a little too premature to declare it a failure,” Massachusetts Secretary of Education James A. Peyser told the New York Times, “but for sure it’s in retreat.”

How NAEP scores match Core results

If a fourth-grader scores proficient on a Common Core-aligned test, will she be proficient on a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam? Not necessarily, writes Marianne Lombardo on Education Reform Now.

Except for eighth-grade math in Missouri and Vermont, students were more likely to test proficient on Smarter Balanced exams than on NAEP.

PARCC is better aligned with NAEP. Students were somewhat more likely to test proficient in reading on PARCC, but slightly less likely to reach proficiency in math.

Some blame Common Core for the overall decline in NAEP scores, notes the Hechinger Report. However, NAEP scores also fell in the four non-Core states – Virginia, Nebraska, Alaska and Texas – in most cases.

Fourth-grade reading scores were up in Nebraska. But math scores fell in Texas and in Minnesota, which didn’t adopt the math standards. “On the eighth-grade math test, Pennsylvania saw the biggest drop at six points, but Texas wasn’t far behind with a four-point decrease.”

‘Proficient’ doesn’t always mean proficient

Lyndazia Ruffin, a fifth grader, last month at West Broad Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. Photo:Andrew Spear, New York Times

A test score that’s marked “proficient” in Ohio may be “approached expectations” in Illinois, reports Motoko Rich in the New York Times.

Two-thirds of Ohio students at most grade levels were proficient on Core-aligned reading and math tests designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, said state officials. education-test

But “similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track.”

In California and North Carolina, state officials combined students who passed with those who “nearly passed.”  Florida’s education commissioner “recommended passing rates less stringent than in other states,” reports Rich.

Before the Common Core, each state set its own standards and devised its own tests. Some states made the standardized tests so easy or set passing scores so low that virtually all students were rated proficient even as they scored much lower on federal exams and showed up for college requiring remedial help.

Setting common standards and using common tests was supposed to end all that. It hasn’t.

“That mentality of saying let’s set proficient at a level where not too many people fail is going to kill us,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit think tank. “The global standard of what proficient is keeps moving up.”

Ohio will scrap the Parcc exam and hire a developer to come up with another set of tests, writes Rich. “Three other states similarly scrapped the Parcc test after administering it this year, creating an increasingly atomized landscape across the country.”

Core exams replace college placement tests

Scoring “college ready” on a Common Core-aligned test will mean something for students in some states, writes Lindsay Tepe on EdCentral.

Nearly 200 colleges and universities in California, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington will use the Smarter Balanced test’s “college ready” designation to place first-year students in college-level courses. The Core-aligned exam will replace placement tests such as Accuplacer or COMPASS.

Several colleges, including Illinois’ community college system, will use PARCC scores to decide who is ready for college-level courses.

At community colleges and non-flagship universities, placement tests steer many students to non-credit, remedial coursework. Few who start at the remedial level go on to complete a degree. Research shows some would do just as well (or no worse) in college-level courses, writes Tepe.

Delaware, where more than half of high school graduates end up in remedial courses and fail them at an alarming rate, this new route to college-level courses could make a big difference for students. Those who score a 3 or higher on Smarter Balanced who are planning to attend the University of Delaware or Delaware State University (remediation rates of 18 and 81 percent, respectively) will proceed directly into classes that will contribute toward their chosen degrees.

How many students who did poorly on the placement test would have done well on SBAC or PARCC? I’m guessing not many. (Delaware taxpayers fund a state university where four out of five students are unprepared?)

By the way, the new euphemism for remedial courses is “pre-college” courses.

Will new tests live up to the hype?

Muslim Alkurdi, 18, of Albuquerque High School, joins hundreds of classmates in Albuquerque, N.M, Monday, March 2, 2015, as students staged a walkout to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Muslim Alkurdi, 18, of Albuquerque High School, joins hundreds of classmates, as students staged a walkout to protest a new exams.

In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised teachers that Common Core-aligned Assessments 2.0 would be the tests they had “longed for.”

Millions of students are taking those new tests this spring, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. Enthusiasm for the new tests has waned.

The federal government put $360 million into the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed Core-aligned tests.

This spring, of the original 26 states that signed up for PARCC, just 11 plus Washington, D.C. are giving the test. Of the original 31 signed up for Smarter Balanced, only 18 are still on board. (In the early years, some states were members of both coalitions.) Several of the states will give the PARCC or Smarter Balanced test for one year only, before switching to their own state-based exams next year. Another Common Core exam, known as Aspire, produced by ACT, has stolen away some states from the federally sponsored groups; this spring students in South Carolina and Alabama will take that test.

On the old state tests, only 2 percent of math questions and 21 percent of English questions assessed “higher-order skills,” such as abstract thinking and the ability to draw inferences, concluded a 2012 RAND study of 17 state tests.

Two-thirds of PARCC and SBAC questions call for higher-order skills, according to a 2013 analysis by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

“In the old tests a student would just get a vocabulary word by itself and would be asked to find a synonym,” said Andrew Latham, director of Assessment & Standards Development Services at WestEd, a nonprofit that worked with Smarter Balanced and PARCC on the new tests. “Now you will get that word in a sentence. Students will have to read the sentence and be able to find the right answers through context clues.”

The new tests require students to answer open-ended questions, which takes more time.  Smarter Balanced will take eight and a half hours, while some PARCC tests will take over ten hours.

Duncan had promised teachers would get quick feedback from the new tests, but it takes time to grade students’ writing. The only way to get fast feedback is to use robo-graders instead of humans.

NJ eyes automated test-grading

New Jersey is considering using robo-graders to evaluate essays on Common Core-aligned tests, reports NJ Advance Media.

Students will type short essays on the computerized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams. This year, they’ll be graded by humans — “but 10 percent of online essays will get a ‘second read’ by a computer to test the viability of automated scoring in the future.”

Computer grading is cheaper and returns scores quickly to students and their schools.

Testing fail

Steve Rasmussen, an education consultant, has written a devastating critique of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) math tests that will be administered to more than 10 million students in 17 states.

Citing test items, he concludes that many violate the standards they’re supposed to assess, can’t be answered with the technology provided, use confusing and hard-to-use interfaces and will be graded “in such a way that incorrect answers are identified as correct and correct.”

Parents are right to boycott the SBAC test, Rasmussen writes.

As you’ll see as you look at these test items with me, a quagmire of poor technological design, poor interaction design, and poor mathematical design hopelessly clouds the insights the tests might give us into students’ understanding of mathematics. If the technology-enhanced items on the Smarter Balanced practice and training tests are indicative of the quality of the actual tests coming this year — and Smarter Balanced tells us they are — the shoddy craft of the tests will directly and significantly contribute to students’ poor scores.

Teachers will need to prep students on how to use the confusing tools, he adds.

Elizabeth Willoughby, a fifth-grade teacher in Michigan, has posted a video of her tech-savvy students struggling to figure out how to enter numbers on a practice test.

PARCC, the other federally funded testing consortium, also has produced a confusing, poorly designed exam, according to Save Our Schools NJ. “In the early grades, the tests end up being as much a test of keyboarding skills” as of English or math competence, the group argues.

As a farmer, Colorado State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg uses math to analyze “cost, production and profit, and quite often, loss,” he wrote. He got the right answers on the PARCC practice math test, but failed because he didn’t “show my work” in the approved way, he complains. Sonnenberg also struggled with the software.

Florida dumped PARCC and scrambled to create its own exam. The rollout of the computerized test created a “catastrophic meltdown,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Miami Herald.

Teachers give low grade to PARCC exam

PARCC — the biggest Common Core testing consortium — has put sample test questions online.

Teacher Peter Greene, who blogs at Curmudgucation, found lots of problems with the practice test for high school English.

To start with, PARCC must be taken on a computer. It’s “a massive pain in the patoot,” writes Greene.

 The reading selection is in its own little window and I have to scroll the reading within that window. The two questions run further down the page, so when I’m looking at the second question, the window with the selection in it is halfway off the screen, so to look back to the reading I have to scroll up in the main window and then scroll up and down in the selection window and then take a minute to punch myself in the brain in frustration.

Teachers will have to prep students to handle the format.

Questions focus very heavily on finding things in the text that support answers. The first question asks which three out of seven terms in the text on DNA testing in agriculture “help clarify” the meaning of  “DNA fingerprint.”

If I already understand the term, none of them help (what helped you learn how to write your name today?), and if I don’t understand the term, apparently there is only one path to understanding. If I decide that I have to factor in the context in which the phrase is used, I’m back to scrolling in the little window . . . I count at least four possible answers here, but only three are allowed. Three of them are the only answers to use “genetics” in the answer.

I tried the practice reading test for grades 3-5. I picked the meaning of “master” with no trouble. Which sentence — out of four choices — helped me do so? None of them.

When the high school test moves on to literature, it demands that poetry has one meaning only, complains Greene.

Reading the text closely is a waste of time, he writes. He can do better by reading the questions and answers closely, then using the text “as a set of clues about which answer to pick.” 

Another section features Abigail Adams’ letter to John Adams calling for women’s rights. Questions focus on “her use of ‘tyrant’ based entirely on context,” Greene writes. “Because no conversation between Abigail and John Adams mentioning tyranny in 1776 could possibly be informed by any historical or personal context.”

In short, he concludes PARCC is “unnecessarily complicated, heavily favoring students who have prior background knowledge, and absolutely demanding that test prep be done with students.”

PARCC won’t produce reliable results, writes Michael Mazenko, a Colorado teacher. He tried the seventh-grade reading test, which contains passages from The Count of Monte Cristo.  That’s too hard for seventh graders, Mazenko writes.

And, like Greene, he thinks the computerized format strongly favors the most computer-savvy students.

A dad opts in to Core testing

Greg Harris, an education writer and parent, is opting in to Common Core testing, he writes on Education Post.

Core teaching  will “promote the 21st century skills needed to navigate and thrive in a complicated world,” he believes.

In addition to practicing addition and subtraction, his first grader created his own word problems and math exercises, writes Harris. He drew his “problem-solving process with crayons.”

His older son’s homework, which is aligned with Ohio’s Core reading standards, includes:

Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says and when drawing inferences from the text.
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).

When his son read Caddie Woodlawn, “he wasn’t asked to memorize passages, respond to fill-in-the blank questions, or answer true or false questions,’ writes Harris. Instead, he analyzed what he read and wrote responses to questions. He was expected to “break down chapters by their main themes and cite supporting evidence from the text to back up his main ideas.”

The PARCC tests my kids will take this year will determine their absorption of this way of learning. Teachers teach to the tests far less, but rather impart skills that will help their pupils learn to write and write well, conduct analysis and solve problems.

Students will struggle at first, but they’ll “rise to the challenge,” Harris writes.

Why suburban moms fear the Core

Hysteria about Common Core teaching and testing has gripped suburban moms, writes Laura McKenna in The Atlantic. She likens it to anti-vaccination fears.

Millions of children will take new Core-aligned tests this spring.  “Conspiracy theories . .  .have grown out of parents’ natural instinct to protect their children from bureaucracies and self-styled experts,” writes McKenna, who’s a suburban mom herself.

White, middle-class parents, often very involved in their kids’ education “worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them,” she writes. They feel powerless to stop the juggernaut.

Social media fans the fears.

There are those Facebook posts promoting articles with click-bait titles like “Parents Opting Kids Out of Common Core Face Threats From Schools,” or “Common Core Test Fail Kids In New York Again. Here’s How,” or “5 Reasons the Common Core Is Ruining Childhood.”

 I can picture it in my head: articles with stock photos of children sitting miserably at a desk or ominous images of broken pencils.

Teachers across the country, including those in her suburban New Jersey district, are turning against the Core, especially if scores are tied to teacher evaluations, writes McKenna.  That’s influenced parents.

Some states have pulled out of the Common Core.  “More than half of the 26 states that initially signed onto the PARCC exam in 2010 have dropped out,” notes McKenna. A dozen states will use the test this spring, while 17 states will take the rival SBAC. The rest will use their own tests.