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Thursday, Feb 9, 2012, 5:16 pm

States Set to Shift Away from NCLB Toward. . .Even More Testing?

By Diana Rosen

The Obama administration announced today that it would grant waivers to ten states to free them of some of the requirements of No Child Left Behind. In return, Obama said, the states "have agreed to raise standards, improve accountability, and undertake essential reforms to improve teacher effectiveness."

Obama also acknowledged that his administration has “determined we need a different approach" than that set forward in the Bush-era NCLB legislation.

What might this different approach be? So far, it's looking like one upshot of the rhetoric around increased accountability will be even more standarized testing. Now that 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative, national examinations may be administered up to eight times a year beginning in 2014. 

The Common Core Standards consist of approximately 20 elementary and high school objectives for kindergarten through high school age students in English, math and language arts.  They were developed as part of a state-led initiative in collaboration with the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The NGABP is an organization made up of the governors of all 50 states whose goal is to “identify priority issues and deal collectively with matters of public policy and governance;” the CCSSO is a nonprofit made up of public officials in education departments. Among Common Core’s sponsors are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and, unsurprisingly, testmakers ACT, Inc., the College Board and McGraw-Hill Education.

The plan is to begin implementing the standards through a national exam developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PAARC) in 2014.  PAARC is a consortium of 23 states and the District of Columbia aiming to develop standardized testing to go along with the Common Core Standards.  The consortium is funded, in part, by a $186 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Race to the Top Competition.  The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), another multi-state consortium funded by the Department of Education, has begun working on developing an exam as well. Ultimately, one test will likely be adopted by states. 

The Common Core Standards will be replacing each member states’ current standards in compliance with No Child Left Behind.  The Common Core examinations will be national and occur more frequently than current state tests. 

The assessments that PAARC is developing are set to begin in second or third grade and continue through the end of high school.  Two exams (one in math and one in reading) will be required twice a year, with an option of administering them four times a year.  If both the required and optional tests are administered, they will total to eight examinations per year. 

Several Common Core States, including Illinois, have begun to adopt practice tests in preparation for the implementation of the Common Core exams in 2014.  Chicago Public Schools began the Common Core Quarterly Assessment for grades 2 – 8 in the fall of 2011.  A high school continuation, the High School Interim assessments will begin being administered in March of 2012.  Both tests are online-only, meaning that schools are required to funnel all of their students through their computer labs eight times a year in a two week testing period.  The exam that PAARC develops is expected to be an online examination as well. 

At Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, a selective enrollment public high school located in the West Loop of Chicago, the additional testing will require juniors, the most frequently tested grade, to participate in standardized testing up to 16 times throughout the school year. 

“Time in the classroom is what’s most important and when the classroom is interrupted 16 times during the year it is quite intrusive,” commented Matthew Swanson, testing coordinator at Whitney Young. 

Along with taking away time from classroom instruction, “teacher performance evaluations will include student performance [beginning in 2014],” according to Swanson.  Administrator performance will also be judged similarly.  The tests aim to track student improvement throughout the year.  This raises the ethical question of whether or not teachers should be judged based on their students’ standardized test scores. 

Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics, found several years ago that evaluating teachers based on standardized testing frequently led them to cheat on the tests.  Scandals in relation to high stakes testing have occurred across the country with tactics ranging from asking students to leave school to actually giving them the correct answers.

Swanson says that if testing is going to be done, there are advantages to administering it over longer periods of time: “If you’re looking to assess a student, it’s better to look at growth over time than one day,” Swanson conceded. 

Whatever the consequences may be, the Common Core Standards and the exams that come along with them are set to turn standardized testing into a way of life for students, teachers, and administrators alike.

Diana Rosen is a winter/spring 2012 In These Times editorial intern.

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