Time to pause on standardized testing
The Common Core State Standards have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia as the foundation for what students in America’s public schools need to know and be able to do. They will require our children to develop a deeper, more conceptual understanding in mathematics and English-language arts. They hold tremendous promise for improving our international competitiveness.
The standards could also trigger a sea change in education, the kind that colleges, businesses and politicians have been talking about – if we give them a true opportunity for success. Unfortunately, our school systems may be too distracted by less-worthy initiatives to give the Common Core the attention it deserves.
That is why I am calling for a three-year moratorium on federally required standardized testing nationwide. If we are serious about realizing the promise of the Common Core, we must allow our school districts to focus on the important work of curriculum and assessment development, implementation and professional development.
Most school systems are trying to implement at least three things at once right now: revamped accountability measures, reforms as part of the federal Race to the Top program and the Common Core State Standards. This is too much at once.
Achievement gap persists
The 2001 No Child Left Behind law was grounded in the right intent: We must be accountable for the achievement of all children, especially those who historically have not been well served by public education. But increased use of standardized tests has been the wrong mechanism. That’s why NCLB has been ineffective at closing the achievement gap.
I applaud Education Secretary Arne Duncan for granting waivers to more than 30 states that, in theory, unleash the creativity of their education departments to design new accountability systems.
But these same departments have been hurt by the recent fiscal crisis. And they are beholden to legislators and executives whose assumptions about public education make them more likely to endorse a continued over-reliance on standardized tests to evaluate schools and educators. Where is the evidence that state departments have the capacity or freedom to redesign accountability systems that support what students need to know in the 21st century?
Meanwhile, many districts and states are implementing changes as part of the Race to the Top competition. This includes teacher evaluation systems that rely too heavily on individual student performance on the current state standardized tests – a practice I vehemently oppose. Standardized tests were not designed to be used as profit-and-loss statements. Student data from reliable sources can be used, but an effective evaluation system must also acknowledge the complexity of being a teacher and focus on pedagogy, content knowledge and classroom management.
And even if this practice were based on appropriate methodologies, implementation requires the alignment of data systems, training, assessments, policies and funding. This is a significant undertaking. It requires time to adapt and modify the system based on lessons learned. Getting it right is a consuming process.
The Common Core State Standards should be our primary focus. But districts are spending so much time implementing new accountability measures and other supposed reforms that they are not developing the capacity to change teaching and learning in the classroom in ways that will enable our students to achieve Common Core’s promise. Districts are not investing in new curricula, assessments, professional development or data systems. Publishing companies will reap rewards by designating their products “Common Core Aligned,” and districts will purchase them still lacking the capacity to use them properly.
A moratorium on tests would give school systems the ability to implement the Common Core with fidelity. It would also give the groups developing assessments aligned to the Common Core the time to get it right.
I am not opposed to all standardized tests. I also support accountability. But the foundation of any meaningful accountability system in education is a strong curriculum delivered by a well-trained, highly engaged teacher. The Common Core gives us the opportunity to build that foundation on the correct things. We need time to get it right.
(Joshua P. Starr is
superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md.)