The Fallacy of Going It Alone on Student Assessments
On June 3, 2016, Jim Cowen, Interim Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success, released the following memo detailing the fiscal and logistical challenges facing states that have moved away from the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments:
Last year, for the first time, a majority of states across the country implemented meaningful tests aligned to rigorous education standards. Gone were many assessments that may have been easily subjected to “teaching to the test.” Gone were many of the simplistic exams that simply didn’t provide a true measure of student development. Instead, many states had embraced tests like PARCC and Smarter Balanced which offered higher quality assessments and comparability across participating states.
The impact was immediate. An analysis by Achieve, an independent education advocacy organization, found 26 states significantly closed what we called the “Honesty Gap”—the difference between state-reported proficiency rates and those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP). Unfortunately, some policymakers succumbed to mounting political pressure to scrap the new assessments in favor of independent or state-developed tests.
Those leaders are now quickly learning that “going it alone” is a poor decision. Many thought they could avoid controversy by simply moving away from the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments. However, as Chalkbeat put it, “The process of leaving consortia that was meant to pacify local protests against Common Core-aligned tests has actually led to chaos and confusion in the classroom, not to mention extra costs to those same states to develop replacement exams.”
- Florida withdrew from PARCC in 2013 and awarded a $220 million, six-year contract to the American Institutes for Research to develop and oversee the Florida Standards Assessment. Last March, computer problems disrupted the writing portion of the exam, forcing a postponement. The following month, students again experienced connectivity problems, prompting individuals across the state to request the results not be considered.
- Indiana exited PARCC in 2013 (lawmakers voted the next year to replace the Common Core) and partnered with CTB McGraw-Hill to update the decades-old ISTEP exam. After coming under fire for technical and scoring problems, lawmakers voted this year to replace the test by the 2017-18 school year. Many experts and educators have expressed concern that does not provide enough time to create a new high-quality exam.
- Michigan lawmakers voted to not use Smarter Balanced in 2015, just nine months before it was scheduled to be administered. It used the M-STEP that year, followed by a different M-STEP exam in 2016, subjecting students to three different tests in as many years. Some in state government are already considering changing the tests again next year.
- Mississippi withdrew from PARCC in 2015 and later signed a $122 million, 10-year contract with Questar Assessment Inc. This spring, 12,000 students across the state experienced connectivity problems on the electronic exams.
- Tennessee exited PARCC in 2014 and contracted with Measurement Inc. to administer the TNReady assessment. After months of technical problems, which forced the state to revert to pencil-and-paper tests—which many schools never received—Tennessee terminated its testing contract. Officials partnered with Pearson to grade the tests that were completed this year. The state paid $1.6 million of a $108 million contract with Measurement Inc.
The list goes on and on. Even states that never adopted the Common Core or assessments aligned to the standards have experienced testing problems.
- Alaska cancelled the computer-based Alaska Measures of Progress this year after a fiber optic cable was severed, which caused the testing platform to crash. The test cost the state $5 million annually, and officials do not know whether the state will be reimbursed.
- Texas—which also never adopted the Common Core or associated assessments—experienced a different type of testing disruption. Parents sued the Texas Education Agency to block officials from using the results of the STAAR exam. The scores are invalid, the lawsuit alleges, because the tests were not designed to be completed by a majority of elementary and middle-school students within two hours (for grades 3-5) or three hours (for grades 6-8).
Beyond the costs, time constraints and technical challenges that accompany the development and implementation of new assessments, states that have struck out on their own have also jeopardized their ability to compare their progress to other states—and may very well come out with an inferior assessment in the process.
One of the chief benefits of comparable, high-quality assessments is the ability for education officials, teachers and parents to compare how well their schools are preparing students relative to others across the country. That information allows families to hold local authorities responsible and to ensure their kids receive a quality education. It allows teachers to gauge their performance, and, more importantly, to collaborate with their peers across district and state lines to build on best practices. By going it alone, state leaders largely forfeit that capacity. This shortsighted, short-term political solution, ignores the economic reality that students today are not simply competing with those in the desk next to them, but also with students on the opposite coast and across the oceans.
What’s more, there is little evidence to suggest whether states’ new exams are high-quality, or if they mark a return to the poor content state leaders worked for years to replace. By contrast, mounting evidence reaffirms the value of both consortia exams.
Across the country, states have raised classroom expectations and begun to measure progress toward those higher standards with high-quality, comparable assessments.
Leaders should resist temptations to go it alone, otherwise they risk undoing the years of work to get to this point. High-quality student assessments are one of the strongest tools teachers and parents have to ensure students receive the support they need. That shouldn’t be surrendered to the political winds of the moment.