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College-Ready Wars: Assessing Threats to the Common Core

Published:  April 19, 2013
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Photo by Flickr user planspark.

Although the deadline for all students to achieve proficiency in math and reading has been lifted in most states by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers, 2014 test anxiety is high as ever. That’s because the 2014-15 school year is the first time 45 states and Washington, D.C. will be fully implementing the Common Core State Standards – including new tests that will be used as part of high-stakes accountability systems for schools and, in many cases, teachers and students. But when the time comes, will states stay the course? Practical concerns along with escalating political arguments already threaten the emerging system of common standards and assessments.

As I wrote previously, Alabama became the first state to exit the Common Core test consortia, opting instead to administer ACT-based assessments. By 2014, Alabama will likely not be alone in its choice. ACT is a well-established player that has spent decades building an organization with a reputation for providing valid, reliable assessments. Conversely, the state consortia are upstarts, attempting to build next-generation assessments and a precarious, multi-state structure to support and sustain the effort simultaneously. Naturally, states are left with many unanswered questions. How much will the new tests costs, and what are the technical requirements? Will the tests accurately reflect a student’s readiness? And will the assessments even be completed on time? In his smart take on the issue, Bellwether Education Partner’s Andy Smarick writes, the ACT “is the ‘Plan B’ that many states – concerned about the reliability and cost of the consortia-developed tests – have been looking for. It enables a state to remain committed to tough standards and rigorous assessments without putting all of their eggs in the basket of a fragile multi-state entity.”

But this kind of pragmatic concern isn’t the only threat to the common standards. While the Common Core is a state-led initiative (I repeat, the Common Core is a state-led initiative), the effort has been supported by private and corporate philanthropy and by the federal government. Specifically, the requirement to adopt the common standards to compete for Race to the Top funding is at the heart of increasingly polarized and politicized arguments against the Common Core. In their words, “Obamacore” amounts to a “nationalized curriculum” and “leftist indoctrination” that has been “forced on state governments” and “imposed on the children of this nation.”

Reasonable individuals easily dismiss most of these arguments. But reasonable arguments are often overshadowed, especially when national politicians and parties start getting involved. Just last week, the Republican National Committee adopted an anti-Common Core resolution, echoing these same divisive arguments.  And President Obama frequently touts that his administration “convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, all for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year” – adding credibility to their claims.

The problem may be about to get worse. As noted in our Key Questions on the Obama Administration’s 2014 Education Budget Request, federal funding for the assessment consortia is set to expire before the tests are fully launched. To provide continued support, President Obama’s latest budget includes a $9 million competitive grant initiative that could finance some of their ongoing work. The other $380 million of the “Assessing Achievement” program would provide states with formula grants for their current assessment programs, although leftover funds could go toward Common Core implementation.

However, a significant change would occur in fiscal year 2015: Assessing Achievement formula funding would be available “only to States that have adopted college- and career-ready standards that are common to a significant number of States” (emphasis added). While Race to the Top included a similar requirement, that program was a competition, where states could opt-out. NCLB waivers also require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they do not have to be common ones. The Assessing Achievement program would mark the first time federal formula funding – typically available to all states – required adoption of common standards. If enacted, this requirement will undoubtedly add fuel to the “Obamacore” fire. On the heels of the president’s budget request, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia) is calling for the federal government to eliminate all Department of Education funding that supports or prioritizes the Common Core – and he doesn’t even mention the Assessing Achievement program.

What can we make of these threats to the Common Core? To date, most of its political detractors have been contained outside of the mainstream and have had little success gaining traction or passing legislation to reverse Common Core adoption. Will the RNC resolution, Grassley’s letter, or potential changes in federal funding have a greater impact?

On the other hand, the pragmatic concerns about how the new standards and assessments will be implemented are just that – pragmatic. Few could fault Alabama’s decision to choose the ACT over PARCC and SmarterBalanced. All three of the developing testing systems could prove to be a great improvement over current assessments, measuring competencies better aligned to postsecondary work and providing more useful information to students, their teachers, parents, and policymakers.

The important difference between the practical and political critiques is that states deciding to use the ACT system are not necessarily backing away from their commitment to the Common Core altogether. Yes, the assessment consortia should do as much as possible to allay the concerns of wavering states. And yes, policymakers and stakeholders should closely monitor all of the emerging for-profit and non-profit ventures to ensure their assessments, curricula, textbooks, and other resources accurately reflect the new standards. But in the end, any damage done to the Common Core from these pragmatic objections to the consortia is far less severe than what would happen in the unlikely, but not out of the question, case that “Obamacore” goes mainstream. Common Core supporters would do well to distinguish between the two. 

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