Most States Have Already Matched Higher Standards with High-Quality Assessments


State efforts to implement high, comparable education standards were pushed by the federal government “using federal grants as carrots and waivers from the now-defunct No Child Left Behind Act as a stick,” Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute argues in US News & World Report.

To undo the perceived federal overreach, Malkus proposes the Trump administration develop an “Interstate Test-item Bank Cooperative,” which would allow states to build assessments from a shared pool of test items. “Doing so would replace a centralized, heavy-handed approach to education policy with one that returns local control to education.”

However, Malkus’ plan is flawed, starting with the basis claim that federal authorities coerced states into adopting higher standards. The concerted effort to raise academic expectations began as a state-led initiative, and overwhelmingly most states continue to implement higher, comparable education standards. In fact, Oklahoma is the only state to revert back to inferior learning goals.

The Race to the Top Program did consider shared standards in states’ applications for federal funds. Experts agree that was a mistake. But that provision accounted for less than 10 percent of a state’s application, and, more importantly, Race to the Top has ended. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law last December and permanently replaces No Child Left Behind, prohibits federal officials from pressuring states to adopt any set of education standards.

Congressman John Kline, chairman of the House education committee and one of the chief architects of the Every Student Succeeds Act, called the new law a “huge win for conservatives.” The federal government, he added, “should not be able to tell states what standards they can or cannot adopt,” and that position is made clear in the law.

What’s most important to address about Malkus’ article is his suggestion that states should participate in an “Interstate Test-item Bank Cooperative.” The promise of high standards is only delivered when it is accompanied by rigorous assessments aligned to those standards. Without assessments as one tool to measure student progress, parents and educators are left without vital information regarding their students’ academic progress.

As states have implemented higher standards, most have partnered them with high-quality assessments, which more accurately measure student readiness. Louisiana’s State Superintendent John White explained previously: “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 the country and its children.”

Most states continue to use consortia exams, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, which are specifically aligned to higher standards. Evidence shows that these assessments are well-matched to good instruction and outperform states’ old tests and even other next-generation tests. (For more, see the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Human Resources Research Organization, and Mathematica Policy Research)

States that have “gone it alone” with student assessments have incurred significant costs and disruptions (which Malkus acknowledges), and may very well end up with weaker assessments. Chalkbeat reports: “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.

Should states move forward with Malkus’ proposal, they should ensure that their assessments remain rigorous, comparable and aligned to their state standards. Student assessments are too important to allow continued conjecture over a debate that has, for all intents and purposes, already been settled to risk undoing the progress states are making.