Education Insider: Common Core Standards and Assessment Coalitions

Since the onset of the standards and accountability movement more than 20 years ago, states have developed their own set of academic standards for what students should know and be able to do in various subjects and grade levels. A major criticism of this movement has been the uneven level of quality/rigor of the standards across the 50 states, as well as the inability to make comparisons on student achievement.

In 2007, in an attempt to address many of the concerns regarding this patchwork of standards, a number of national associations, think tanks, and foundations began exploring the idea of replacing the fragmented approach with the adoption of a common set of standards in key academic areas.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an unprecedented collaboration of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands who came together to create a set of common core standards in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. These standards are intended to provide a clear and consistent framework, internationally benchmarked, of what students needed to know in order to be prepared for the expectations of college and careers. The process involved work groups composed of teachers, higher education representative, state leaders, and subject matter experts. Several drafts of the standards generated more than 10,000 comments used to refine the standards.

While states voluntarily agreed to participate in the process, the effort gained a great deal of momentum when the Obama Administration included participation in the Common Core as an eligibility criteria for many of the programs created out of the $110 billion stimulus funds. Programs such as Race to the Top rewarded states that not only participated in developing the Common Core, but also adopted them. To date, more than 37 states have adopted the Common Core and are in the midst of transitioning to the new standards.

An equally important component of this initiative is the adoption of a common (or comparable) assessment system across the participating states. Supported through $350 million in funding from the ARRA, the Administration held a number of hearings to develop a competition to fund next generation assessment systems aligned to the standards. In the end 26 states formed the PARCC RttT Assessment Consortium. Their approach focused on computer-based "through‰-course assessments" in each grade, combined with streamlined end of year tests, including performance tasks. A second consortium, the SMARTER Balanced Consortium, brought together 31 states proposing to create adaptive online exams. The exams would be offered twice a year with optional formative assessments throughout the year to provide ongoing feedback to teachers and school leaders.

A number of critical questions still remain around how these systems will be adopted and ultimately implemented. For instance, who will exercise authority over setting the cut scores, what entity will be responsible for "upkeep" of the standards/assessments going forward, and how will the information be used as part of accountability systems. In addition, with the naming of the winners of the recent RttT competition, it is not clear if the absence of the financial incentive for those states which were not awarded grants will hinder the deployment of the CC in their states. Finally, the anticipated changes in the Congress and numerous statehouses will introduce many new policy makers into the common core discussion who have had no history (or fidelity) with the initiative.

If implemented as envisioned by its proponents, the effort to adopt and implement the Common Core Standards and Assessments will have significant ramifications for our entire public education system, touching everything from instructional methods in the classroom to efforts to redress funding inequities to implementation of accountability systems. It will impact not just overall federal and state policy efforts, but also other areas such as evolution of preservice programs, the regulatory environment for solution providers, companies offering assessment or professional development tools, and other education reform efforts.

With this in mind, we've asked our Insiders questions including:

  • How different is this push for common standards compared to past efforts, and what does that mean?
  • Can the implementation of common standards be sustained beyond the four years of federal funding?
  • Will common standards lead to genuine changes in teaching and learning?
  • Is the Common Core a necessary driver to enable broader policy reforms and serve as a platform for innovation?
  • Will the midterm elections with 37 governors, numerous state chiefs, and state legislatures jeopardize the momentum around Common Core adoption? Could states reverse course of their predecessors?
  • Is there support in Congress to link Title I funding with state adoption of common standards?
  • How many states will adopt common standards?
  • Who will ultimately make big decisions about the new standards and assessments?
  • Would a common assessment system improve the quality of the assessments and comparability among states?
  • How will these efforts change the marketplace of assessment providers?
  • What do Insiders think are critical components of new assessment systems and how much support is there for those elements?
  • How rigorous is each of the assessment coalitions and what is the likelihood of each receiving funding and driving real change?

If you have to make consequential decisions based on what‰'s happening with the common standards and common assessment work, you can‰'t afford not to know what those closest to the action in Washington think is likely to happen ‰-- or not happen.