"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Common Core: Where Are We Getting Our Assessments?

(This is the fourth of eight blogs on Common Core.  For previous blogs, click here: Intro, Point 1, Point 2)

UPDATE: The Utah State Board of Education applied to be removed from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in August, 2012.  They then selected the American Institutes for Research (AIR) a "behavioral and social sciences organization" not a testing organization to create the Common Core-aligned state tests to be administered in 2014.  To read about AIR, go to my blog here

3. Common Core proponents say that the standards do not determine assessments.

In discussing Common Core (CCSS) , I have had proponents say things like, "It's just standards.  It doesn't dictate testing or curriculum".  Standards will require testing aligned with those standards.  So, who is involved in creating those tests? After three days of blogs on this subject, I assume no one will be surprised by the answer...the Federal Government.  The US Department of Education is funding the assessments for the Common Core.

Many of you have read my first blog on this topic.  Some of it will be repeated here, for clarity.  In short, the US Department of Education gave a grant of $330,000,000 to two consortia to develop assessments.  The Smarter Balance Consortia (SBAC) is the one Utah belongs to, along with about 30 other states.  The assessments are to be computer-adaptive and available in 2014.  Computer-adaptive tests use a series of more detailed questions to determine the knowledge of the test-taker.  For example, if you answer an initial question correctly, the subsequent question goes into greater depth and so on. 

An emphasis is being placed on the testing by US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  He said:

As I travel around the country the number one complaint I hear from teachers is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn't measure what really matters... Both of these winning applicants are planning to develop assessments that will move us far beyond this and measure real student knowledge and skills.
One concern with this approach is the SBAC consortium doesn't appear to focus on content knowledge.  While there is concrete knowledge included in the Common Core Standards, the emphasis in all the meetings I've attended, and apparently in the assessments, has been on processes and communication instead of content. 

Dr. W. Stephen Wilson, a professor of mathematics and education at Johns Hopkins University, reviewed the assessment plan for Smarter Balance.  He is concerned by the emphasis on mathematical processes over actual math knowledge and skills.  (Read his full comments here.)  Dr. Wilson says:

The conceptualization of mathematical understanding on which SBAC will base its assessments is deeply flawed. The consortium focuses on the Mathematical Practices of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) at the expense of content, and they outline plans to assess communication skills that have nothing to do with mathematical understanding....

Mathematical Practices, or what was usually called “process” standards in most states, do little more than describe how someone pretty good at mathematics seems to approach mathematics problems. As stand alone standards, they are neither teachable nor testable. Mathematics is about solving problems, and anyone who can solve a complex multi-step problem using mathematics automatically demonstrates their skill with the Mathematical Practices, (whether they can communicate well or not)....

Ultimately, the actual assessments will tell us all what SBAC thinks is important.... It appears that the assessments will focus on communication skills and Mathematical Practices over content knowledge. [emphasis mine]

Another critique said:
Both [CCSS assessment] consortia appear poised to develop subjective assessments rather than objective tests. SBAC plans to assess deep disciplinary understanding and higher-order thinking skills. Will either PARCC or SBAC test student content knowledge and skill? [emphasis mine]
Additionally, I was able to review some sample test questions.  I saw a lot of free-text, explain-your-answer questions.  Let me give you one example. 
First, you have a 4-paragraph description of a family concerned with their gas bill and a page of the bill. 

Part A: Using a free text response: Assess the cost-effectiveness of new insulation by researching "heating degree days" on the internet. The response must include:
  • Compare the heating costs from Jan. 2007 to Jan. 2008
  • Explain the savings after the insulation
  • Identify circumstances under which the Jan. 2008 bill would have been at least 10% less than the Jan. 2007 bill
  • Decide if the insulation was cost-effective and provide evidence of this
Part B: Create a short pamphlet from the gas company to guide customers in increased energy efficiency:
  • List the quantities the customers need to consider in assessing cost-effectiveness
  • Generalize a method of comparison used for the gas bills with a set of formulas, and provide an explanation of the formulas
  • Explain to customers how to weigh the cost of energy efficiency measures with savings on their bill
Then upload your pamphlet...to the computer for grading.
While this might be a good classroom exercise, this is a math test, remember? I don't even want to go into how a computer accurately grades something like this.  I assume the program is looking for certain numbers and words in the response, but there are so many variables to how one answers this.  One computer science person stated he is familiar with the capabilities of natural language programs and worried this would exceed those capabilities.  In short, our kids may not be able to do math problems, but, at least, they'll be able to explain about the math problems and make pretty pamphlets. 

I haven't even gotten into Language Arts yet.  There are more concerns about the Language Arts assessments, not the least of which is the writing piece.  How does one effectively measure writing without a human involved?  I will go into my concerns with Language Arts in greater detail when I address curriculum next time.

Assessments will drive the curriculum.  We will teach what is on the tests.  It is important to know who is writing the tests and what they are evaluating.  Who are the people involved in SBAC?  What are their backgrounds, their biases and their agendas?  How do we prevent these biases and agendas from spilling over into our very verbose computerized tests?  The assessments are too big of a player to turn over to some "experts" and the Federal government.

Two additional points of concern are peripherally connected to the assessments.

First, some people feel they don't need to worry because they homeschool, or go to private school or send their kids to charters.  Well, the charter schools are treated the same as the district schools when it comes to standards and assessments: they're going Common Core.  But home and private schools may not be free and clear either.  The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is concerned with not just the influence of Common Core on public schools, but private and home schoolers, as well. Congress reauthorizes their Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization (ESEA) bill every year.  The ESEA is the main way the feds create their own standards for our schools and appropriate funding for education to a large degree.  This year's version has made HSLDA very nervous.  In short:

In addition, one provision in the Senate’s bill mandates that any state taking federal funds must put in place “College and Career Ready Aligned Standards.” Mandating that each state have aligned standards with aligned coursework will guarantee the creation of national academic standards, national curriculum, and national testing. We believe this will result in the eventual requirement that homeschoolers use these national standards, curriculum, and testing. [emphasis mine]
A few years ago when ESEA created No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Utah tried to opt-out of federal education dollars and the NCLB constraints.  The feds responded that we could go ahead and do that, but they would provide NO federal funding to the state.  That means we wouldn't lose just the education dollars, but road funds, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.  Given the above ESEA concerns, the state would be forced to forgo $5.2 Billion or "ensure", through state law, that all education venues (public, home, private) meet "College and Career Ready" standards and assessments, aka Common Core.

The other concern has to do with privacy and data collection.  As part of the stimulus bill, the US Department of Education (DOE) has required the states to create longitudinal data systems.  The idea is that your child's information is tracked from preschool through college.  This will allow for greater information for research in education.  How does this tie in to Common Core?

The Common Core standards were the vehicle to get the longitudinal database. … They want to get all these systems where they interconnect. … The data sets already exist and are coded.

To protect your child's privacy, the feds have a rule called FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).  Currently, certain people (e.g. elected school board members administrators) can view personally identifiable information (PII) about your child.  Any data the school collects, they can have access to.  Up until this month, they did not have the right to share that information, except under very specific circumstances.  Now, this data can be shared, without your consent, to bureaucrats in other agencies or private organizations as "authorized representatives". 

Thus, for example, a school may turn over PII to DOE as part of regular procedure and not be told that DOE is disclosing that data to a research company. And if the school discovered, and objected to, the redisclosure, DOE would not even have to point to an express legal authority for its action.
Read more about these concerns here, realizing this was written prior to the adoption of these new FERPA standards. 

And just to make you even more comfortable, here's more information about data collection on students.

Under regulations the Obama Department of Education released this month, these scenarios could become reality. The department has taken a giant step toward creating a de facto national student database that will track students by their personal information from preschool through career. Although current federal law prohibits this, the department decided to ignore Congress and, in effect, rewrite the law. Student privacy and parental authority will suffer.
How did it happen? Buried within the enormous 2009 stimulus bill were provisions encouraging states to develop data systems for collecting copious information on public-school kids. To qualify for stimulus money, states had to agree to build such systems according to federally dictated standards. So all 50 states either now maintain or are capable of maintaining extensive databases on public-school students
The administration wants this data to include much more than name, address and test scores. According to the National Data Collection Model, the government should collect information on health-care history, family income and family voting status. In its view, public schools offer a golden opportunity to mine reams of data from a captive audience. [emphasis mine]
To view the pieces of information to be collected, including religious consideration and diseases, illnesses, etc. go here

The Feds are incentivizing the assessments, but do we have to adopt them?  Not yet.  Our agreement with SBAC says we will contribute to their consortium.  There is no statement of obligation to the tests, I am told.  However, in a discussion with a State Office (USOE) employee, she said there would be no reason to belong to the consortium unless we implemented Common Core now and were able to give feedback on the assessments.  Some of the State Board of Education members do not want us to adopt SBAC because of the costs and/or concerns about the content of the assessments.  They are supportive of the Common Core standards, but would like Utah to develop its own assessments.  Another USOE employee stated that the USOE/State Board will select the questions for the assessments from a database of those created by SBAC.  Also, one of our USOE employees is high up in the SBAC consortium.  The assumption is that those USOE employees will effectively screen anything that doesn't maintain Utah values from the assessments.  They say there is no need to worry, and we will always be able to back out. 

Having said that, why am I bothering to give you this information?  It's all good, and if it isn't, we can opt out at a future date.  I believe my role is to give you the information, both the positive and the negative.  The positive is already out there.  But there's always a downside.  We, the people, need to be empowered to make our own decisions and hold our elected officials accountable.  Providing only one side of the story is not sufficient.  There are pros to Common Core, but there are also cons.  You need to see both sides, make your own decisions, and then act on those decisions.

There are, at least, three entities you should contact about Common Core: the State School Board, your legislators, and the governor.

First, you need to let the State School Board know of your concerns and that you are watching the assessment process very closely.  Utah should not have signed on to a program without data (or textbooks) to back it up.  What concrete protections are they putting in place against encroachment by the Feds or even areas of concern in the standards and assessments when accepting things from other states?

Second, your legislators need to be aware of and remove (if found) any direct references to Common Core, SBAC (Smarter Balance) or standards from a consortium of states in any of the legislation that may discuss education standards or assessments.  This could be a backdoor approach for enshrining Common Core into law.  (It currently is only the policy of the State School Board; not the law of the State.)  They need to know if you favor Utah creating its own assessments.  The legislators also need to be asked about the protections they will be putting in place to prevent Federal overreach into the area of education.  Education is a state issue, not a Federal one.  We should not be willing to grant that authority to any government or organization outside of Utah.  If (or should I say, When) the Feds use their power of the purse to 'encourage' us to tow the line, we need to already have legislation in place to prevent them, other states, or outside organizations from dictating our standards, assessments, or curricula.

Third, the governor signed on to Common Core.  He needs to hear of your concerns as well.

Please know, however, it requires some digging to find this information I'm presenting.  Those who decided on this were presented only the roses of Common Core, not the thorns.

In conclusion, the Feds are paying two consortia to develop assessments.  These assessments appear to test communication and processes over actual content knowledge or skills.  Additionally, several pieces of legislation and DOE regulations could require all students to meet Common Core standards (often phrased as college- and career-ready) and take Common Core tests.  Finally, using the vehicle of Common Core, we have a nice data-collection system.  I don't believe this is what the State School Board had in mind when they adopted the Common Core standards, but this is what it has become.  We have sacrificed the principle of local and parental control on the alter of (supposed) better educational outcomes and a desire to keep up with "other states".  We will reap the rewards of less control and greater bureaucracy with no guarantee of the original outcome.  There is never a right way to do the wrong thing.

1 comment:

  1. What states did not opt in and what consequences are they suffering, if any?