Thompson: Florida Test Controversy Previews Common Core Crises
In "FCAT Debacle: Why Public Awareness Matters," EdSector's Susan Headden recounts what she describes as "the latest fiasco in standardized testing."
An emergency session of the Florida Board of Education dropped cut scores on the state's new writing test as 4th grade proficiency rates fell from 81% to 27%. Headden predicts that "districts are going to have to get used to these rude surprises." The 46 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards will have just two years to get ready for their far tougher challenge. The tests will not just assess basic skills, but deeper learning, critical thinking, analysis and high quality writing.
Follow the links that Headden provided and the enormity of the task becomes clearer. And it becomes much more obvious that accountability hawks, including Headden, still do not understand the mess that contradictory "reform" messages have created.
Now, teaching to "a test worth teaching to" is seen as the answer to teaching to the lousy test mentality. My reading of the Florida rush to Common Core is that it was assumed that the old tactic of coercing schools to "work harder" would also make students "work smarter." From the classroom to the state house, there seemed to be a faith that being "tougher" on educators and students was the path toward more engaging instruction for analysis and synthesis.
In another link provided by Headden, Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinal reported that Michigan and other states saw similar drop-offs when standards were raised but, still, the declines in 4th, 8th, and 10th grade writing test results were shocking. Postal explained that flawed communication was part of the problem. A writing teacher said, "teachers understood that the new standards would be "tougher," but "obviously we were a little out of touch with what the expectations were." Commissioner Gerald Robinson even speculated that 4th graders did so poorly because they "might not have realized their essays would be scored in a stricter way."
Florida addressed their self-inflicted wound by merely dropping the cut score used for grading schools from a "4," so that a "3" became a passing score. But, in another link, the Tampa Bay Times' Jeffrey Solochek wrote that the writing test "is typically considered the easiest and the one with the fewest consequences for individual students." If raising standards on an easy test is so difficult, what does that say about the prospects of intimidating schools into better performance on truly challenging assessments?
It is theoretically possible that even more ratcheting up of stress on schools can prevent "an unmitigated disaster" as Florida and others implement Common Core. On the other hand, you cannot intimidate students into doing something that they don't know how to do. For instance, Education Week's Andrew Ujifusa reported that two-thirds of the 37% of sophomores who passed were on the bubble, earning the intended minimum passing score of "4." A back of the envelope estimate of those results (1/3rd of 37%) would produce a rough guesti-mate that only one in eight sophomores are ready to tackle the higher writing standards.
Even if the challenge was simply moving students on the bubble to the other side of the cut line on a primitive standardized test, such numbers should provide a wake-up call. The challenge of mastering qualitatively different standards is qualitatively different than the challenge of improving scores on old-fashioned tests in a less lenient manner.
Despite her many profound insights into the challenge of implementing Common Core, Headden still seems to be whistling by the graveyard. As is often the case, she accurately diagnosed the causes of reform failures, explaining that, "relaxing cut scores on tests of basic skills (in this case grammar and punctuation) serves only to perpetuate the sorts of lies that we have been telling our children for years— that they are proficient in essential subjects like math and English when in fact they are not."
Headden wrote, "The public is understandably fed up with testing." But then she seems to pretend that parents, voters, and the business community are education policy wonks. If they "understand the goals of the new testing program ... they will be more likely to give it the support it needs to succeed."
Headden, rightly, argued for better tests, and better professional development, but they are the easiest of our challenges. In an age of accountability, the tendency is to see "tougher" as the only definition of more "challenging." But, teachers can only teach problem-solving after receiving an unambiguous guarantee that our jobs, and our bosses' jobs, do not depend on bubble-in gimmicks. If Common Core is going to be more than just another silver bullet, teachers and students will need a respectful learning climate. Inner city teachers and students can learn to excel with the college prep curriculum that is offered in many elite and selective schools, but we cannot do so until our schools have an environment that allows for higher levels of learning.
But, I do not want to end on an argumentative point. Susan Headden stresses the importance of high-quality assessments and professional development, while I stress the need for concrete improvements for conditions on the ground. While I question her continuing faith in the potential of high-stakes tests, Headden is correct in predicting, "It is virtually certain that when the Common Core tests become the measure of proficiency across the land, scores in some states will plunge."
When scores plummeted this year in Florida, I would ask, why was that seen as a problem? If stakes were not attached, the drop-offs would have been seen as growing pains as the state raised its standards. Were those tests not used to grade schools, there would have been little need to lower the proficiency bar. If we want Common Core to succeed, and I do, should we not see such setbacks as a part of a shared challenge and explicitly repudiate the use of its assessments to punish?- JT (@drjohnthompson) image via.