My Turn: Reviewing the basics about Common Core and testing

Last modified: 5/3/2015 11:41:02 PM
This may be a good time for me, as chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education, to review the fundamentals that underlie what the board and the department of education do in setting academic standards and doing the annual assessment of all New Hampshire students.

The New Hampshire state board has set academic standards since the 1990s. The standards have always been a minimum, subject to adoption or enhancement by local school districts. They still are.

But it’s also true that the Legislature has, as required by our New Hampshire Constitution, put statutes in place to assure that every child gets an adequate education.

RSA 193-E opens with a wonderful statement promising to provide all students with the knowledge and skills for life and “an education that is consistent with the curriculum and student proficiency standards specified in state school approval rules and New Hampshire curriculum frameworks.”

The statutes carry out that mandate in the New Hampshire way, saying that the standards and guidelines the state sets are the “framework for the delivery of educational services at the local level” and that “school districts then have flexibility in implementing diverse educational approaches tailored to meet student needs.”

RSA 193-E goes into great detail, saying that the Legislature “requires the state board of education and the department of education” to maintain curriculum frameworks “called for by the academic standards for each area” and “the curriculum frameworks shall serve as a guide and reference to what New Hampshire students should know and be able to do in each area of education.”

But it is still up to local schools to use “approaches best suited for the students in their communities.” There is no ambiguity in our statutes.

RSA 193 relies on these “state-established standards.” And RSA 186:8 I tells us at the state board that must adopt rules that set “minimum curriculum and educational standards for all grades of the public schools.” The state board and department of education have been rigorous in implementing these constitutional and legislative mandates.

Assessments

Constitutionally, education is a state responsibility and the state contributes almost a billion dollars to help communities provide an opportunity for an adequate education. Our schools must be accountable to parents and voters and the annual assessment is one part of that.

RSA 193-C, the Statewide Education Improvement and Assessment Program, is the primary New Hampshire statute that implements responsibility, saying that the annual assessment is “an important element in educational improvement” and “an effective measure of accountability” when done right.

RSA 193-H, School Performance and Accountability, expands on this responsibility, saying that schools “shall ensure that all pupils are performing at the basic level or above on the statewide assessment” and “shall meet statewide performance targets.” The federal government sends New Hampshire about $200 million per year to help students at risk and with special needs. If schools agree to accept those funds, they agree to be held accountable.

Since 2001, that requirement has been part of the No Child Left Behind act. ESEA section 1111 requires “a single, statewide State accountability system” that is “the same accountability system the State uses for all public elementary schools and secondary schools or all local educational agencies in the State.” Section 111 says the state must use “the same academic assessments . . . to measure the achievement of all children.” Specifically, it requires that the state implement “a set of high-quality, yearly student academic assessments” and that the assessments must be “the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all children.” There can be no serious doubt that the state board and the department are faithfully implementing state and federal law when we require all school districts to administer the same assessment.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education paid for the development of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, a new kind of assessment that meets the requirements of both state and federal law. Smarter Balanced is a big step forward and a much better test than we could have afforded on our own.

Opting out

No one likes tests – especially not standardized tests like for math or driver’s licenses – but they are part of life whether a child is going on to college, the military or straight into a 21st-century job.

And in New Hampshire, RSA 193-C:6 says, “All public school students in the designated grades shall participate in the assessment.” Federal law also requires full participation, defining that as 95 percent of the children. So if our statutes encouraged opting out and that resulted in low participation, the result could be a loss of federal funding.

Beyond state and federal accountability requirements, low participation on the annual assessment would deprive parents, voters, teachers and school boards the information they need to know how well their children are progressing and how to help them do better.

PACE

There is no such thing as a “waiver” that would allow districts to choose their own assessments. There would be no comparability across the state and, therefore, no accountability for school performance.

However, New Hampshire has received special permission from the U.S. Department of Education to carry out a pilot assessment program in Sanborn, Epping, Rochester and Souhegan school districts. These are the only four districts in the country not giving their students the annual assessments identical to those throughout the state.

With department guidance, Performance Assessment for Competency Education, or PACE, districts have worked together for many months to create locally managed competency-based assessments.

New Hampshire has been on the path to competency-based education since 2005 and those statutes provide the basis for the PACE project. RSA 193-H, the one about School Performance and Accountability, is written entirely in terms of competencies, defined as, “student learning targets that represent key content-specific concepts, skills, and knowledge applied within or across content domains.”

Section 1-a talks about the purpose, saying, “Students best learn at their own pace as they master content and skills, allowing them to advance when they demonstrate the desired level of mastery rather than progressing based on a predetermined amount of seat time in a classroom will assure that students will reach college and career readiness.”

It goes on to say, “Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned and awarded and provide students with personalized learning.”

This statutorily mandated personalized learning is, indeed, the direction in which the state board and department of education have been seeking to lead our schools over the past 10 years. And the PACE districts are leading the way.

But this is just the beginning. If all goes well, there will be four more districts next year and many more after that.

We are working toward the time that parents and educators seek, reducing the need for standardized testing and allowing our classroom teachers to do meaningful assessments that are assets rather than obstacles to learning.

It may seem at times as if the State Board of Education and the Department of Education create policy. We do not. We implement the policies passed by our Legislature. If you would like easy access to the statutes I have referred to here, I have posted a full length version with all the links on the department web site at: education.nh.gov/state_board/authorityforstandardsandassessments.htm.



(Tom Raffio is the chairman of the State Board of Education.)


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