Jun 18, 2013 by

[6.10.13 — Please notice that the Common Core Standards Writing pilot assessment being given to selected 8th graders in the Washington, D. C. public schools next week does not indicate that students will have questions that test correct grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.  These are the skills that today’s students lack and which keep the content of their compositions from being coherent and clear to the reader.  In fact, the description of the PARCC Writing tests sounds very familiar to us in Texas who administered the same type of TAKS Writing tests for 13 years (starting in 1997) in which we have seen our students’ English proficiency skills plunge.  It was partly because of the lack of basic writing and speaking skills that the elected members of the Texas State Board of Education adopted new curriculum standards starting in May 2008.  These new standards emphasize the foundational English proficiency skills so badly needed all across our country.  – Donna Garner]



“DC schools are trying out a Common Core-aligned test”
by Natalie Wexler • June 10, 2013 1:06 pm


Critics predict that the introduction of the Common Core State Standards will engender a host of problems. This week, a tryout of one of the Common Core-aligned tests in 25 DC schools may provide a glimpse of things to come.


The Common Core, which has been adopted by 45 states and DC, promises to shake up the way American children are educated, placing more emphasis on analytical thinking and writing. Some have decried the initiative as an attempt to transfer control over schooling from local authorities to the federal government. But in concept, the Common Core has the potential to introduce not only greater educational rigor but also greater consistency among the states in evaluating student achievement.


On the other hand, even many of those who applaud the Common Core concept have doubts about the way it’s being implemented. And one of those concerns is about the tests that will be based on the standards.


Now the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is launching a trial balloon that may uncover potential problems. Starting this week, 1350 8th graders in 25 DC public schools (16 DCPS schools and 9 charters) will be taking a prototype of the Common Core writing assessment. The assessment will take each student about an hour to complete, and schools will administer the tests between June 10 and 19.


The trial is part of a multi-district study by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the two consortia that have devised Common Core-aligned tests. Twenty-three states and DC have joined the PARCC consortium, while 28 have chosen to go with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (generally referred to as “Smarter”). Beginning in 2014-15, the PARCC tests will be given to all DC public and charter students in grades 3 through 11.


According to OSSE, the PARCC pilot assessment that DC 8th-graders are taking this week consists of two “prose constructed response tasks” (essay questions about a given text) and 20 “evidence-based selected response items” (multiple choice questions about a text). Personnel at the schools that have volunteered to participate in the study are being trained by the test vendor PARCC has chosen, the educational publishing giant Pearson.


OSSE will collect data on how long it takes students to respond to each item and how many students skip certain types of items. They’re also hoping to determine how well the test’s built-in technological accommodations for students with disabilities will work.


Testing raises larger questions


There are larger questions as well. The PARCC assessments will be given online, which means that test results will be available much earlier than those on the DC CAS, perhaps in just a couple of weeks. But it also means that schools will need to have enough computers to provide one for each student and that all students will be able to connect to the Internet.


That might not be a problem in a limited tryout. But in a recent survey, only 23% of education “insiders” thought that schools would have enough bandwidth to administer the Common Core assessments when the time comes. And even during the tryout, some students may be at a disadvantage because they’re not accustomed to writing directly onto the computer or their keyboarding skills are deficient. (My own experience tutoring DCPS high school students in writing indicates that this could be a problem.)


Another question is how the writing assessments will be scored: by a computer or by a human being. OSSE says the scoring method has yet to be determined, but most likely it will be a combination of the two. While multiple choice questions can easily be scored by a computer, it’s far from clear that a computer is capable of evaluating writing.


Of course the overarching question is how students will perform on the test. OSSE says that results from the tryout will be made public, but “at the test item level only,” since the purpose of the tryout is to assess the quality of individual questions. But even without an overall result, it should be possible to get an idea of how well prepared DC students are for this kind of test. And chances are the news won’t be good.


The Common Core is a carefully graduated system, starting in kindergarten and slowly increasing the demands made on students. But the testing isn’t being implemented gradually. Eighth graders will be expected to have mastered the 8th-grade Common Core standards even though they’ll only have had at best a year or two of exposure to the Common Core approach. And writing in particular is a skill that most teachers haven’t focused on.


Setting students up for failure?


Sample questions for the 8th-grade writing assessment aren’t available on the PARCC website, but a look at the sample 10th-grade questions is sobering. The text that serves as the basis for the questions is a lengthy and high-flown translation of the Daedalus and Icarus story, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that would probably challenge many college students. It may well be, as two professors argue in Sunday’s New York Times, that some of the standards are pitched at so sophisticated a level that they’re setting many students up for failure.


A recent series in Education Week, focusing on an 8th-grade class at Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, is a vivid illustration of the difficulties facing DCPS teachers trying to adapt to the Common Core. “Sometimes,” says an assistant principal at Stuart-Hobson reflecting on the challenges of guiding teachers through the new standards, “I feel like the blind leading the blind.” (Stuart-Hobson is not one of the DCPS schools participating in the PARCC tryout.)


It’s clear that students and teachers are trying hard, but bringing a largely disadvantaged student population up to the ambitious standards set by the Common Core is a gargantuan task. Test scores will probably drop significantly once PARCC replaces local tests, as they didlast year in Kentucky, the first state to completely align its tests to the Common Core.


We should be prepared for that, and prepared as well for the missteps that will undoubtedly occur in DC and other districts as they feel their way through a system that demands so much of both teachers and students. Those missteps, including any uncovered by this week’s writing assessment tryout, are mistakes to learn from, not grounds for abandoning the Common Core effort. The standards leave a lot of room for interpretation, and teachers, who are in the best position to know the needs and capabilities of their students, should have a say in that conversation.


The process of fine-tuning won’t be easy, and at times it may not be pretty, but there’s a good chance that ultimately it will result in the high-quality educational experience that students in DC and across the country deserve.


  Natalie Wexler is a member of the board of DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer writing tutor at a DCPS high school. She has also worked as a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist and is the author of two novels.



Donna Garner


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