Common Core testing failing so far

January 8, 2014

As the New Year launches, disquiet over Common Core testing is building. States from Kentucky to New York to North Carolina have posted abysmal scores on early tests aligned with the math and English Language Arts standards adopted by 45 states. Parents and local educators, many of whom feel duped by Common Core’s stealthy arrival, are raising a ruckus. As a result, multiple states have moved to delay components of Common Core implementation or testing. North Carolina should follow suit.

In early November, North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction released scores on the first round of Common Core tests, revealing epic rates of failure. At all points along the grade third to eighth continuum, a majority of students fell short of proficiency thresholds. Fewer than half of third-graders scored proficient in reading and math. Among eighth-graders, 41 percent demonstrated proficiency in reading; just 34 percent did so in math.

Should we be mollified by assurances that the standards measured by these tests are well-crafted and rigorous? Nope. Content experts on Common Core’s validation committee, Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, refused to approve the standards, calling them flawed. Education historian Diane Ravitch, a liberal Common Core opponent, blogged about North Carolina’s scores with unstinting disapprobation: “Now we adopt untested standards written by non-educators whose only certain result is to mark children as failures.”

How are education officials responding? As columnist George Will would say, they’re doing what bureaucrats do: Doubling down on losing bets. At the State Board of Education’s December meeting, DPI continued its push for tests for grades thid through eighth and 11th from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two federally funded national consortia developing Common Core exams. (North Carolina is an SBAC governing member.)

These tests won’t come cheap. According to DPI, the per-pupil price tag for state-developed tests last year was $11.23; SBAC online tests will cost $22.50. But this figure is woefully imprecise, and doesn’t include massive cash outlays for districts’ technology upgrades (initial and ongoing) to enable online testing.

This price estimate also reflects cost-sharing among states that are members of SBAC. What if more defect? An October 2013 Brookings Institution report indicates that SBAC withdrawals by six states roiled by Common Core controversy would raise per-pupil testing costs to $25. Are any of the six mulling a run for the hills? One just broke free: Kansas withdrew from SBAC in December over cost concerns.

The bottom line: No one knows how much these tests will cost.

DPI is hoping for a State Board decision on SBAC tests this spring, but rough waters lie ahead. Even if DPI persuades the board to accept consortium tests, another hurdle looms: The board must secure authorization from the North Carolina General Assembly. For their part, lawmakers are taking a closer (and overdue) look at the standards: The General Assembly recently convened a Common Core State Standards Study Committee.

Minimally, our state should rethink consortium tests, as others are doing. Massachusetts announced recently it would wait before adopting the tests statewide; a final decision on consortium tests is due in 2015. Louisiana also is delaying portions of the testing program.

Better yet, North Carolina could opt for a nationally normed achievement test. Such a test would offer broad feedback on student performance (beyond what Common Core dictates), while still allowing the state-by-state comparisons educators want.

The fiercer, more consequential battle, of course, is rolling back the national Common Core standards themselves, and replacing them with robust, evidence-based state standards. Such a move will require both time and fortitude, however. Stay tuned.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.