Addressing Concerns About Curricular Materials and Assessments aligned to Common Core in Louisiana

In a letter to the New Orleans Advocate, Wade Smith, a Louisiana educator, expresses a concern over the lack of curricular materials aligned to the state’s Common Core State Standards and questions the validity of using the Common Core-aligned assessment as other states have withdrawn from the testing consortium, making comparison to other states difficult.

“We are giving a test that measures curriculum without a state-endorsed, universally provided curriculum,” Smith writes. “The test results are supposed to be meaningful for national comparisons, but we are down to six states and D.C.”

Smith is correct that there is no “universally provided curriculum” for the Common Core. That’s because the standards do not dictate what teachers teach or how they teach it. The Common Core sets clear, rigorous learning goals for each grade level. How educators help their students reach those targets is left up to them and local school boards. Smith’s concerns, therefore, are not with Common Core, but with the quality of materials available to Louisiana’s teachers, a valid issue that should be addressed within the district or at the state level.

As a result, local teachers and administrators have overwhelmingly taken control of what’s taught in their classrooms. A study by the RAND Corporation found nearly all elementary and secondary teachers report developing their own classroom materials. In a survey by the Center for Education Policy, two-thirds of school districts reported teachers are designing curricula, and half said the district is providing support.

By providing rigorous, consistent learning goals and giving teachers full control over how best to achieve those, the Common Core State Standards empower educators. Last year 21 State Teachers of the Year explained, “Under the Common Core, teachers have greater flexibility to design their classroom lessons—and can, for the first time, take advantage of the best practices from great teachers in other states.”

However, on the matter of assessments, even though some states have chosen to use independent or state-developed tests, there is now greater comparability among states and districts than ever before. Last fall Louisiana superintendent John White explained, “States have adopted higher standards, states have tests that measure those standards and they’re comparable, so there can be an honest baseline…That is a fantastic success for each state and for America and its children.”

While the relatively new assessment in Louisiana is rigorous, it also now more honestly details student proficiency, whereas the old, less challenging assessment claimed certain levels of students were proficient that were in fact, not accurate.

Going it alone with state assessments, as Smith seems to suggest, would create uncertainty for Louisiana’s schools, and would likely to produce a test that is inferior to the consortia exams. “Beyond the costs, time constraints and technical challenges…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,” Jim Cowen noted in a recent memo.

Studies show that the PARCC assessment, which Louisiana uses, is a high-quality test. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds PARCC outperforms other high-quality assessments, including the ACT Aspire and MCAS. Likewise, research by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) applauds PARCC for reflecting the skills and knowledge students need; aligning closely with good classroom instruction; and including rigorous, age-appropriate material.

“Unlike old ‘bubble tests,’ the consortia exams require students to explain their logic, and the adaptive format drills down on how well they understand the material,” Pam Reilly, former Illinois Teacher of the Year and a participant in the NNSTOY research, wrote this year. “I can say with confidence these new assessments are the kind we should want our kids to take.”

While Louisiana may need to iron out its curriculum at the state and district level, the standards and assessments remain strong and a step in the right direction for students in the Pelican State.