Common CoreI am no expert on educational testing and wouldn’t presume to offer my own comments on the subject.  But the following observations from Todd Kern, a New Rochelle resident and public school parent whose professional life is devoted to academic innovation, are so thoughtful and informative that I felt his words deserved to be shared more widely.  Todd sent his comments as an email to friends and gave me permission to post his note to my website.  If you’re interested in this topic, the following is worth a few minutes of your time . . .

Todd Kern’s Comments on Educational Testing

With state tests starting next week, it seems the chatter about whether to opt “in” or “out” is building to a near frenzy.  Because I work nationally in the education sector, several of you have asked my opinion, so here goes.  Caroline and I are having our kids take the tests.  I’m not interested to persuade you one way or the other, but I thought it might be helpful to at least share the thinking behind our decision.

DISCLAIMER: I have not spent any time doing research on this topic specifically; I do not profess to be an expert on the many nuances of standardized testing; and I do not intend for this to be a comprehensive analysis.  This simply represents my opinion/perspective based on my understanding of the situation.  Caveats: check.

First, there is A LOT of confusion out there right now – not just in New Ro, or even in NY, but across the country.  There are many reasons for this confusion — most understandable and justified, some less so.  I think it results primarily from the confluence of multiple complex changes occurring at essentially the same time, with various factors that are getting mixed up…and with different terms being used inconsistently and/or incorrectly with little time to stop and separate them out.  Add in a healthy dose of politics/partisanship (at least at the state and national levels) and it’s no wonder folks are confused.

Second, let’s break things down a bit:

Common Core – some folks say they’re “against the Common Core,” but when you dig in, usually that’s not what they’re really upset about.  Bottom line: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are literally just a set of standards about what kids should know and be able to do to be successful.  They’re different than the old standards in that they’re designed to be fewer, clearer and more explicitly aligned to what it takes to be ready to succeed in college.  That’s it.  Some experts may quibble over the specific composition of the standards, but I think it’s pretty hard to argue with this as a basic concept.  This is what we want for our kids.

How CC is “taught” – lately I hear lots of other parents expressing frustration or bewilderment over some curriculum-related outcomes of the move toward Common Core (e.g., “the math is so different than how I learned it, I can’t even help my kids with their homework”).  No question that some things have changed.  Some of this is due to the shift toward CC.  Some isn’t (e.g., “new math” that’s focused more on conceptual understanding didn’t just start last year).  In any case, it’s an adjustment for everyone.  For us parents because sometimes it makes us feel like we don’t fully understand what’s happening with our kids.  For our kids, too, but they’re generally way more adaptive and resilient than we adults are.  The changes are probably trickiest/hardest for our educators (both classroom teachers and building leaders) — they’re being asked to absorb and metabolize a lot of change very quickly, and to teach sometimes new material in new ways and not always with enough time to prepare for the transition they’re being asked to make. That’s not easy.  And the rollout of CC was pretty terrible (not just in NY), which makes things worse, but doesn’t mean the underlying ideas are bad.  Add the specter of new teacher evaluation systems connected to CC and the stakes and passions only go up (more on that below).  In any case, the real measure of whether this new approach is better/worse for our kids will probably only show up some years down the road (e.g., when kids who don’t naturally excel at the linear forms of math we were all taught show greater confidence and “number sense” when they’re older).  Change is hard.  The question is whether it’s a move toward “better.”  Because the standards are smarter, I think it is and so I’m content to let this transition unfold naturally on its own. 

How CC is “assessed” – you could build a PhD around this question (and many have), but this is one of the messiest and most confusing pieces of the puzzle…and where many of the most heated arguments arise.  Long story short, states that adopted CC standards had the option to either build their own assessments or adopt the tests developed by one of two national consortia: either the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC).  NY chose PARCC. (Personally, I’d have preferred SBAC, which I hear does a slightly better job of assessing kids’ “deeper learning” skills…but this is really on the margin and the state had its reasons.)  In any case, these state tests are complex psychometric instruments that need to be designed, tested, fielded and refined to fix the parts that don’t work as intended on the first try.  This is true of every test like this.  Mostly science, but also a little “let’s make it better as we go.”  These tests – both PARCC and SBAC – are far from perfect.  But just as above, because they are built around better underlying standards, I definitely think it’s worth moving in this direction and learning what we need to make them better, more accurate assessments of what kids know and know how to do as an assessment of college readiness.  In any event, this is where the national policy infrastructure has moved.  No one can go back or “undo” it, so it think it will be more effective/productive to build from this point forward.

Whether/how CC test data will be used to “evaluate teachers” – at just about the same time that CC was being introduced nationally, states (with some nudging from the feds) moved to revise systems for evaluating teachers. It was probably unstrategic to roll these ideas out together and I think is one of the main reasons the politics have collided so violently. There are many different versions of educator effectiveness systems being tried across the country.  Virtually all rely (in big or small ways) on student performance on standardized tests as one of many factors that determine teachers’ performance.  Should teachers be assessed 100% on how kids perform?  Of course not.  That’s ridiculous – there are way too many factors that influence student learning (including many that are entirely outside of teachers’ control). Flip side: is it inappropriate for this data to be incorporated in some way?  I don’t think so.  In the end, it’s what we need schools to produce: more kids who are prepared to be successful in college, career and beyond. Professionals in every other sector – including in other public good areas, like healthcare – are measured at least in part against data like this.  Test data matters and (I think) can be at least a piece of the puzzle.  You may or may not agree, which is totally fine.  Just my opinion.  Either way, it’s definitely not the only thing that matters and I haven’t heard anyone suggesting otherwise.

Whether/how CC test data will “affect students” – I’ve heard many variations of “the tests don’t count anyway.”  This generally refers to whether/how the tests will be counted in terms assessing kids’ performance and/or whether/how outcomes will be used to determine what options/opportunities students will have as they advance to the next grade level or school.  I’ve also heard some conflicting (or vague) responses from school leaders flying around.  I’m not sure I have much of an opinion on this, so I think we should look to school and district leaders to clarify further, if/where they are able.

Next, there are at least two other critical dynamics at play:

Teachers have one of the most important and under-appreciated jobs in our society.  Yet, they get beat up on a routine basis (e.g., media portrayals, stereotypes, lower-than-deserved pay, etc.) in ways that are often under-informed and wildly unfair.  For any who might think teaching is an easy or cushy job, I’d suggest you give it a try. (My mom recently retired from 35 years as a 7th grade science teacher, which is largely what drove me into a career in ed policy/reform.)  Over the past generation, our education system has been in the process of trying to change.  Not fast enough.  Along the way, the system has piled more and more on teachers, often without enough support. Now, when new curricula and assessments are being introduced (hastily and sloppily), and then teachers are told that data from the still-not-quite-right assessments will also be used to evaluate their performance, I fully understand and support their frustration.  We need to treat our teachers with more respect as professionals.  However, this alone does not justify (to us) a protest vote to sit out the tests. Doing so robs us (as parents) and our kids of information about how our they’re doing; robs the system of the opportunity to make the tests more accurate and useful; and does next to nothing to change the state policies with which many of our educators are so understandably frustrated.

This whole kerfuffle misses a broader and MUCH more important point: standardized tests are not, and never will be, an accurate way to assess students’ learning by themselves.  Good news is that neither the state nor the district suggests they are.  This would require a longer discussion, but there are lots of exciting efforts underway nationally that broaden how we define what knowledge, skills and competencies kids need to be successful…and how we might go about determining whether they’re getting them.  Virtually all of them are anchored to Common Core as an underlying framework in some way.  This is promising.  But it’s also a reason to not throw out Common Core or the existing, imperfect strategies to assess it.  This is all part of complicated tapestry and no one gets to simply edit out just the parts they don’t like.

Finally, even though my job might put me in a better position to understand some of the nuance, Caroline and I ultimately think about this as parents.  What’s best for our kids?  In the end, the world still requires performance tasks as kids move forward in life, and we think more practice can only be a good thing (e.g., to enable them to feel more comfortable later when the stakes might be higher).  We’re telling our guys to take the tests seriously, to try their hardest, but not to sweat it.  These tests should not be about a “score” so much as evidences of where they’re each succeeding and struggling on their path toward what comes next.  That’s valuable information to us as parents…but hopefully even more so for their teachers, who can use it as professionals to help them continue to learn and grow.  I think we all want that for our kids.  Eventually, as the education system continues to evolve, this will be more the way it’s designed to work and teachers will get this data and lots of other non-data information about kids in something closer to real-time, which can be used to help them personalize the learning experiences for each kid.  It will be much harder to tell the difference between teaching and learning and assessment.  And evaluation of teachers’ effectiveness will be much better understood and connected to a more rational system.  This will be better for both students and teachers (and all of us).  But we’re not quite there – we’re still in the messy middle part.  So for now, despite the complexity and open questions, we’re happy to stay “in.”