Standardized student testing, also known as student assessment, can be an expensive proposition. Given the expense and the pressure it puts on students, why should we bother testing at all? On a macro scale, we need to be sure our schools are adequately preparing students for college and careers. From a pedagogy standpoint, which teaching methods are working best and which need to be improved? An important goal is to insure our students will succeed as adults and take their place among adults around the world, no matter which state they grow up in.
One possible approach to student assessment is for each state to independently develop their own tests. In the past that was the only choice. But state governors found the expenses involved can be staggering. Georgia has budgeted $110 million for their Milestones tests. A Brookings study in 2012 put states’ costs for standardized testing at $1.7 billion per year, or an average of $65 per student.
Back in 2009, governors of all parties got together through the National Governors Association to find a better way. At the time, Kentucky faced a slashed budget, and an expense of $3-5 million per subject to develop testing standards. To address the challenge, Terry Holliday, Kentucky schools chief, proposed pooling resources across all states. The National Governors Association responded with the idea for the Common Core State Standards.
The impetus behind the Common Core was to create one set of educational standards for all states to use, along with tests to track results. Up to that point, state officials were faced with cases like a fourth-grader in Arkansas being considered proficient in math — only to be told he’s failing when he moves across the border to Missouri.
In 2009, 48 out of the 50 states signed on to the project with very little argument. Online tests were created for grades kindergarten through 12th. The goal was to provide tests at an annual cost per student in the $20s and, with the help of federal government funding, they succeeded. Two testing consortia emerged through the process. In 2014-15, 18 states are aligned with Smarter Balanced and 11 with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
With Online Testing Come Important Benefits
The style of testing and the quality of the tests have come a long way from the days of filling in an oval with a number 2 pencil. The advantages of online testing are legion. They are easier to administer, easier to grade, and provide important insight, even while the test is being taken. For example, bad questions can be identified through the item discrimination index, cheating can be immediately flagged. Even the length of time that students spend on each question can indicate their level of understanding. Network analytics insure that online testing performs glitch-free.
The tests are no longer simple, multiple-choice questions. They make full use of student devices like PCs and Chromebooks.
“Each question has to be written, then reviewed for bias and age-appropriateness, and field tested. Then it may be revised or even thrown out. When you add up nine grade levels, all with different tests in math and English, we’re talking thousands and thousands of questions. A single multiple- choice question costs roughly $1,000 to develop,” says Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.
The Common Core Timeline
Here’s a summary of how the Common Core State Standards came to be, as detailed in Education Week:
- 2009: Governors and chief state school officers launched the official request for the standards at a summit in Chicago.
- 2010: The U.S. Department of Education awarded $360 million to two test groups—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and PARCC—to design assessments for the standards.
- 2014: Field-testing of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments began.
- 2015: For political reasons, several states reversed their adoptions of the standards, and nearly half of the states backed out of their initial promises to use tests.
- 2015-16: All but seven states still had the common standards on their books as the 2015-16 school year began.
The good news is in the 2015-16 school year we will be able to garner meaningful data to serve as a benchmark against student performance. States are starting to see their own individual results as well. According to US News & World Report, “in states that rolled out the standards early, test scores dropped the first year, but rebounded after that. In Kentucky, the first state to adopt Common Core State Standards, the percentage of high school graduates ready for college and career has increased from 34 percent to 62 percent in just four years.”
In spite of the cost and educational benefits, resistance to Common Core is still present in many states. Massachusetts decided to move to a combination of Common Core and in-state developed testing, at the cost of an extra year and unknown millions of dollars. Many states have opted to tap into the benefits of common core testing, but avoid the political strife by giving their tests a different name. It will be interesting to see if US students fair better in the upcoming Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing. Last time around (2012) US students ranked 30th in math and 23rd in science, behind countries like Việt Nam, Poland, and Lithuania.
To learn more
Excellent background on Common Core with thoughts on how it became a political football, by Joy Resmovits: How The Common Core Became Education’s Biggest Bogeyman
Insight on the Common Core tests by Amy Scott, Marketplace Learning Curve: With Common Core testing, you get what you pay for
Try a practice test to see the online format and the types of questions: PARCC Practice Tests for English Language Arts and Mathematics