Common Core testing takeaways

Four major lessons from round one of Common Core assessments
By: | Issue: September, 2015
August 19, 2015

How can districts use the Common Core-aligned assessments to improve education if the results won’t be available until later this fall, after the current school year is well underway?

That’s the question district administrators have been asking themselves for months, ever since millions of American students took the first round of Common Core-aligned assessments earlier this year.

“I rely on data to make decisions,” says Bill Bressler, chief academic officer of Legacy Traditional School District in Arizona. “It was very frustrating for us to spend a summer without the data we need to plan effectively for the fall.”

Given the lack of concrete data, savvy administrators are analyzing their districts’ experiences with the assessments to improve the testing process and communications next year.

Lesson #1: Parents, educators and legislators value assessments. But they don’t want tests to reduce instructional time.

Last spring’s round of Common Core assessments revealed deep ambivalence. In most places, testing covered two school days, with tests administered to all public school students in grades 3 through 12.

Many parents and legislators protested the extra use of school timeÑnearly eight hours of testing per student. The opt-out movement is, in large part, an apparent reaction to what many parents see as an over-emphasis on testing, and many educators have voiced similar concerns.

New testing times from PARCC

The PARCC Governing BoardÑcomposed of state education commissioners and superintendentsÑdecided last spring to consolidate two testing windows into one and reduce total test time by about 90 minutes beginning in the 2015-16 school year.

The vote came in response to school district and teacher feedback during last spring’s testing and a careful review of the test design. The two windows had comprised performance-based testing conducted in early spring and the end-of-year testing conducted in late spring.

The changes will improve and simplify test administration for schools, teachers and students, without diminishing the assessment goalÑto ensure all students in every school are being taught what they need to know to be successful in the next school year and in college or career.

“The United States is the only civilized country in the world that thinks testing every kid every year from grades 3 through 11 is smart public policy,” says David Browne, superintendent of Randolph Township Schools in New Jersey. “It’s horrendous and debilitating, and parents are, frankly, right about this.”

In Browne’s district, high school students missed class time to take the mandatory PARCC assessments. Students who refused to take the tests attended class as usual. “In effect,” Browne says, “we penalized the kids who took the tests by continuing with regular instruction while those who took the tests took a four- or five-day break from class.”

Moving forward: The PARCC Governing Board has already announced plans to consolidate the two PARCC testing windows into one and reduce the total test time by 90 minutes.

Browne is considering changing his district’s schedule, so assessments will take place during the first part of the school day and be followed by regular classes.

Browne also is lobbying legislators to move away from state-required testing of all children every year. “It is akin to saying that in order to make hospitals function more effectively, we should take everybody’s temperature more often,” Browne says. “Testing a random sampling of students across demographics would give us the same data with much less disruption and stress.”

Lesson #2: Don’t underestimate privacy concerns.

Some parents and others objected to the assessments because they worried about mass collection of data. “Parents want to know what are these big testing vendors and the federal and state government going to do with my kid’s testing data?” says David Doty, an educational consultant with the firm Education Direction.

It’s easy to dismiss privacy concerns as overblown paranoia, especially when some sound so outlandish.

“I’ve talked to educators in Indiana and Arizona who have told me about reports of parents asserting that they’ve heard the computer was going to take a digital retinal scan of their kids’ eye when their kid logged onto the computer,” says Doty, former superintendent of Canyons School District in Utah. “While that may sound like crazy conspiracy theory, it’s a legitimate concern in the minds of people who are really concerned about it.”

Treat opt-out requests with respect

Whether or not educational reformers ever imagined the opt-out movement when they were re-imagining state standards and assessments, one point is clear: Today’s administrators must be prepared for opt-out requests.

Even in Arizona’s Legacy Traditional School DistrictÑwhich administrators describe as “politically conservative and not opposed to accountability”Ñdozens of parents came forward with opt-out requests, with “everything from citations from the U.S. Constitution to legal opinions from Glenn Beck,” says Bill Bressler, the district’s chief academic officer.

Bressler spent a lot of time talking to parents, answering questions and easing concerns, and some parents who initially objected to the assessments ultimately agreed to let their children take the tests. Other parents simply kept their kids home on assessment days, and the district respected their choice.

Children who attended school but opted out of the test were told about the district’s expectations for “academic excellence,” Bressler says. No student was isolated, but the district did “not provide accommodations” for students not taking the test, he says.

At Randolph Township Schools, a relatively affluent district in New Jersey, more than 20 percent of high school students opted out of the PARCC assessment. Because the high school runs mixed-age classes, students who opted out of the test attended class as usualÑmeaning that students who took the test missed educational class time.

At the elementary school level, students who opted out were encouraged to bring something to read.

“Our foundational guiding principle throughout was to treat people, both parents and their children, with respect,” says Randolph Superintendent David Browne.

And respect is the right approach, says David Doty, an educational consultant with Education Direction. Instead of dismissing parents’ concerns, listen and provide information.

And while districts are required to administer the assessments, Doty says district leaders should have a way for parents and students to opt out of the assessment or anything else in the curriculum.

“As with anything in the public school curriculum, you cannot please everybody. So at the end of the day, you have to do what is best for the vast majority of students and families,” Doty says.”Give people a voice and a way to opt out, but move forward with what you feel is a valid policy for improving schools and improving student achievement.”

And whether or not it’s a realistic concern, it’s one that administrators may be hearing and may need to address.

Moving forward: Administrators need to deal with parent, student and community concerns calmly and rationally. One useful approach: Respond to the root concern without arguing. For instance, parents who bring up retinal scans are clearly interested in privacy, so thank the them for their concern and share concrete information regarding what you’re doing to protect student privacy.

“Let parents know who has access to student data and outline the technology procedures you have in place to assure data privacy,” Doty says. Include detail regarding the security of your servers.

Also find outÑand communicateÑwhat steps the testing services have in place to secure data. Tony Alpert, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, says the organization does not collect any personally identifiable data.

“We don’t require any identifiable dataÑnot district name, school name or student date of birthÑin order to do our analyses,” Alpert says. “The only data we need are the demographics of the students who took the test, their No Child Left Behind subgroup identification or description and some information about the test itselfÑwhen it was started, what grade level it wasÑand then the student responses.”

Educators and assessors may review exams during training, but any personal information a student may share in a written response is redacted.

Lesson #3: Mind the (tech) gap.

Legacy Traditional School District, like 60 percent of Arizona’s school districts, did not have enough computers or bandwidth for students to take the test in the spring of 2015. For example, one school with more than 1,000 students had only one computer lab with 30 computers, says Bressler, the district’s chief academic officer. And the testing recommendation is one computer per 10 students.

So Legacy’s students, like many in Arizona, took a paper version of the AzMerit test, the Arizona assessment designed to measure student achievement in English and math. The experience was frustrating for both children and educators. “We had children crying because they felt like they were not able to demonstrate their ability to master content,” says Bressler.

The paper tests contained misprints, and students and teachers were unsure how to properly indicate math answers. “We didn’t know, do we do it left-justified or right-justified? Do we indicate fractions as ½ or 1-2?” says Barb Cushing, a junior high math teacher at Legacy’s northwest Tucson campus.

Moving forward: Bressler is juggling his district’s budget to drastically bump up the number of computers. “We’ve had to make some sacrifices and compromises to make sure we could purchase computers and mobile computer labs,” says Bressler.

The district will also increase technology instruction, including time on professional development with computer teachers, says Paula Jensen, Legacy’s deputy superintendent of academics.

And all district leaders should build on computers and PD to address the tech gap. “A lot of low-income students don’t have computers at home,” says Doty, the consultant. “Many students come without keyboarding skills. They don’t know how to drag and drop stuff on a screen or how to navigate a complex testing format online. A lot of education has to go toward building students’ technology skills.”

Lesson #4: Manage the message.

Many administrators were so busy aligning curricula to the Common Core and preparing for new assessments that they missed the chance to communicate with the public. The lack of accurate, official information allowed misleading messagesÑsuch as rumors calling the assessments a governmental data-mining plotÑto proliferate online and in media.

“Most parents don’t know anything about assessment,” Doty says. “So you’re going to have parents who think their kids are doing really well all of a sudden find out that their kids aren’t doing so well.”

Moving forward: Consistent and accurate communication, which is coming directly from school administrators, can go a long way toward dispelling concerns. Smarter Balanced plans to offer administrators new communication materials to help explain assessment results to a variety of stakeholders, Alpert says.

The materials will help administrators tailor answers to questions such as, What do these scores mean? How will they be used to improve teaching and learning?

Expect heavy media coverage and conversation when assessment results become public. Administrators should offer their services as an expert source for local journalists and consider writing columns for the local paper. Says Doty, “I don’t think you can over-communicate anything with respect to these assessments.”

Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.