Op-Ed: Too Early for High-Stakes Testing Based on Common Core

Lisa Wolff | June 16, 2014 | Opinion
Hold off using CCSS-based tests to decide if students graduate or to assess teacher performance

Lisa Wolff
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are often at the center of controversy, but interestingly, strong proponents and opponents of the standards seem to agree on the goals of bipartisan co-sponsored New Jersey Assembly Bill A-3081 that is on the Legislative Calendar for Monday, June 16. Namely, to create a task force to research current costs and issues associated with transitioning to a new CCSS-based test and to delay making high-stakes decisions based upon those test results until associated concerns are resolved.

A-3081, if passed in its current form, will not delay implementation of CCSS or the new assessment. It only delays the immediate use of new test results for “high-stakes” decisions such as whether a student is allowed to graduate high school or in evaluating teacher performance.

It should not be surprising that both sides may agree, since common sense dictates sequential implementation. It’s fairly simple — ensure vehicle safety first, and then evaluate driver performance. The PARCC assessment is the new vehicle designed for measuring student performance.

The only public opposition to A-3081 came from the New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA). According to Mike Vrancik, director of governmental relations, “In terms of PARCC testing, NJSBA is acutely aware of the technological challenges it poses to many school districts.” NJSBA therefore supports initiating the task force as described in A-3081, but opposes waiting for task force outcomes. Instead, NJSBA advocates concurrently using test results in high-stakes decisions.

The Gates Foundation, which spent over $200 million promoting CCSS, issued a statement correcting for flaws in the current federal plan by noting that assessment results based on CCSS “should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion . . . during this transition” to the new test. The delay would allow time for thoughtful implementation, thus maximizing opportunity for overall success. Concurrent implementation, in their words, is akin to “measuring the speed of a runner based on her time — without knowing . . . whether the stopwatch worked!”

Many school boards, including my own, have issued resolutions in support of A-3081. Our resolution documents numerous widely held concerns we experienced as a pilot participant for the new test. Our new evaluation system is successfully rolled out and features powerful goals for all employees and includes meaningful benchmark data for measuring student achievement and improvement. We are hesitant to add the additional transition test data until its flaws are corrected.

As mentioned in NJ Spotlight, the assistant commissioner Bari Erlichson devoted her talk before the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools group, to a defense of the state’s timelines as laid out for the federal government.

There was a certain irony to her explanation. She stated proudly that NJ is ranked quite well nationally and she attributes it to our high standard setting. She cited as an example that, under the previously flawed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, our high bar meant that a significant number of NJ schools would not meet minimum adequacy standards. (By contrast, Mississippi only reports 12 percent below adequacy.)

She described it as “a self-inflicted wound” since NJ high standards resulted in a correspondingly high number of self-reported schools below adequacy rate. Consequently, NJ sought and received a waiver to avoid harsh federal penalties. According to Dr. Erhlicson, a condition of that federal waiver was that districts use PARCC test results for teacher evaluation under current timelines.

The deal with the devil is NJDOE receives a waiver to avoid draconian NCLB consequences in exchange for imposing new harsh consequences based upon results of an unproven assessment.

As a nation, we shot ourselves in the foot under NCLB. Let’s not reload the gun. We owe our children a thoughtful rollout that realizes full student achievement potential.
Let’s learn from our mistakes and do things right the first time. Lawmakers should pass Assembly A-3081 and associated Senate NJ-S2154 and state officials need to work with the federal DOE on an approach that makes sense for New Jersey.