Unsolved Problems with Common Core-Aligned Tests

There are many teeth in the Common Core Standards project.  These teeth do not lie in visits by monitors from a department of education (in place of a school’s principal) to each elementary classroom in a school. Soft regulatory teeth lie in the Common Core-aligned textbooks, professional development, and instructional materials, software, and other products teachers are encouraged or required to use.  

The teeth are most prominent in the tests based on Common Core’s standards to determine whether students have learned what the tests claim to assess or can do satisfactorily what the test items expect them to do. According to proponents of accountability, student scores are the major means by which policy makers and school administrators will judge whether teachers have taught to these standards. Common Core’s tests are high-stakes for teachers, less so for students. Only the tests for “college readiness” in grades 10, 11, or 12 will be very high-stakes for students as well as for teachers. Yet, as the Common Core drama unfolds, we don’t know much about the tests aligned to them.

Common Core-aligned tests MUST by law be based on a state’s official standards.  That is why the tests given in the Bay State (aka MCAS 2.0) are aligned to Common Core.  Despite their name, they are based on the Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics adopted by the state board of education in 2010 and slightly revised by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in 2016 for the four-year state education plan required by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). (Since the tests are given in the Bay State, they are legitimately Massachusetts tests, except for the fact that they are totally unlike the original MCAS tests. For example, no Open Response or OR test items, which were very useful for assessing content-based writing. On the original MCAS tests, there were four OR test questions on every test given at every grade level.)   The state’s four-year plan was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in 2017 for review and approval, in exchange for Title I money. Approval by the state legislature and local school committees was not required or obtained for four-year plans that no one in the state debated or voted for. 

Since all states today use Common Core-aligned tests, that means almost all schools (including public charter schools) teach to Common Core’s standards. It is not possible to understand the growing opposition to Common Core’s standards without understanding several key issues now being raised about the tests aligned to them.   

A. Criteria Used for Selection of Passages for Reading Tests

The first questions a responsible parent would ask about Common Core-aligned reading tests are: (1) What is the basis for selecting reading passages?  (2) Who actually selects them? We don’t know the answers to these questions for any Common Core-aligned tests, whether given in the Bay State or elsewhere, regardless of name.    

It would have been reasonable for the original USED-subsidized testing consortia (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career or PARCC, and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or SBAC) to use the criteria that developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are supposed to use for NAEP reading tests. Why? Primarily because the chart showing the “percentage distributions” of basic types of reading passages on NAEP reading tests (informational or literary) is already in Common Core’s English language arts (ELA) document, and the chart is recommended as a guideline for the school reading curriculum even though these percentages were never intended by NAEP to guide the K-12 curriculum. NAEP documents tell us only that these percentages are for the different kinds of reading passages to be used on NAEP tests.  In fact, NAEP Steering Committee members were told that NAEP test developers deliberately do not assess dramatic literature (plays) on the grounds that test passages would have to be very long and would exceed word limits for test passages.  

Mary Crovo, recently retired as Deputy Executive Director of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) in December 2016 and, prior to 2005, Assistant Director of Test Development at the time I was on the Steering Committee for the development of the 2009 reading assessment standards, is one of the few people who can speak to this issue because of her many years of work with NAEP.  NAEP’s decision to exclude assessment of dramatic literature makes it clear that the percentages of literary and informational passages recommended at different educational levels for a Common Core-based K-12 curriculum were NOT intended by NAEP to shape a K-12 reading and literature curriculum. (Dramatic literature—think Shakespeare—was considered by many as the central genre to be studied in high school English.)

Nor is there any research suggesting that a heavy dose of informational reading in secondary English classes develops reading skills as well as, or better than, the literary essays, biographies, and well-known speeches English teachers have always taught in their courses.  David Coleman, lead writer for Common Core’s ELA standards and now CEO of the College Board, probably didn’t understand this or know that members of NAGB in 2004 had helped to develop criteria for the kind of reading passages to be chosen by NAEP test developers. 

Passage Source: Among other criteria, the NAEP document on item specifications for the 2009 NAEP reading assessments says that reading passages are to “reflect our literary heritage by including significant works from varied historical periods.”  USED could easily have insisted on this criterion for the Common Core-aligned reading tests it funded since several of Common Core’s high school standards require the study of this country’s seminal political documents, as well as significant texts or authors in American literary history. But so far, no sample test items for college and career readiness tests can be found addressing this country’s seminal political documents. Released PARCC test items can be located via this website. SBAC provides sample test items here. Apparently, few test developers and educators care what is assessed by Common Core-aligned reading tests.  

Overuse of Informational Snippets: Many sample passages in grade 10 or 11 test items aligned to Common Core’s reading standards cannot assess college readiness because they are snippets from what could be a long curriculum unit in science or history with a heavy discipline-based vocabulary load. Surely, if college readiness is to mean anything at all it should mean the ability to follow the gist of long stretches of prose or poetry. It’s hard to see how college readiness can be determined by test items consisting chiefly of short informational articles drenched in subject-related vocabulary.

The sample test item passages for grade 10 released by PARCC about 2013 (but no longer available, alas) demonstrated the use of whole selections at a high school reading level. A sample literary test item required students to compare “Daedalus and Icarus” by Ovid with a poem by Anne Sexton that was related in content. The sample informational selections for grade 11 included a letter by Abigail Adams to her husband and a letter on July 3, 1776 from John Adams to his wife. While these short, related selections constituted a promising set of selections, we do not know how typical these kinds of selections were or are in PARCC test items.  It is certainly not clear if any Common Core-aligned informational test items will be of an adequate length for judging readiness for, say, reading a chapter in a frequently assigned college science or history textbook.  

Other Test Issues: As of 2019, we still do not know what specific people have vetted test items in either reading or mathematics and how demanding the items are for high school college and career readiness tests (or for the revised SAT or ACT tests now judged by USED as legally usable as high school exit tests). We do not know if college teaching faculty in mathematics, science, engineering, and the humanities have been involved in determining cut-off or pass scores for college readiness. Nor do we know exact costs to the schools of what are called college readiness tests (say, compared to pre-Common Core MCAS in the Bay State) and, of far greater importance, what their scores mean to academic experts in the subjects tested.     

B. Low Expectations for College- and Career-Readiness

We must above all consider what Common Core means by “college readiness.”  Common Core itself claims that by addressing its standards, students will graduate from high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. College readiness thus means that students will not have to take a remedial course in mathematics or English if they seek to attend a non-selective college or a community college. 

In Mathematics: Yet, with respect to the coursework implied by the math standards themselves, college readiness reflects a relatively weak algebra II course, as mathematician James Milgram pointed out.  Both logarithms and the standard algebraic analysis of conic sections are missing, according to his examination of the math standards. With only a few advanced (+) standards in trigonometry filling the void between the algebra II standards and introductory college mathematics, Common Core’s standards apparently cannot help to prepare students for STEM careers, which require extensive high school coursework in trigonometry and/or precalculus.   

In English: We know much less about what college readiness in English language arts means.  Common Core’s ELA standards suggest few specific texts to read, and the range of titles in Appendix B in its ELA document illustrating the quality and “complexity” of what students should read from grade to grade is so broad by the high school years that no particular level of reading difficulty above grade 5 or 6 can be discerned.  A variety of research studies suggest that the reading level of the average American high school graduate is about grade 6.   Moreover, we don’t yet know where the pass score has been set in ELA or reading (or, if it has been set, who set it and what it means to English professors or anyone else).

C. What College Readiness Test Scores Tell Us 

What, then, can college readiness test scores in mathematics and reading tell us?  Since tests based on Common Core’s standards cannot address the mathematics requirements of selective public or private colleges/universities (because major topics in trigonometry and precalculus are not in Common Core’s standards, and state-mandated tests by law cannot address topics that are not in the state’s official standards), scores on Common Core-aligned tests can tell us only how many students may be ready for a non-selective or community college. It is unclear whether most colleges now have any reading requirements; they may rely simply on a score on a presumably college-related test such as a literature or language Advanced Placement (AP) test. Although, now that AP tests are aligned to Common Core’s standards, it is not clear what AP test scores themselves mean.

What will we as a society have gained and lost by the use of Common Core’s “college readiness” tests?  We will likely gain a much larger number of college graduates, assuming that more students will complete a college degree program because they haven’t had to take remedial coursework in their freshman year. But they are unlikely to know any more than they would have known if they had had to take remedial coursework because their for-credit college coursework will likely be adjusted downward to accommodate their lower level of high school achievement. 

Recall that the level of college readiness in Common Core mathematics is, to begin with, lower than what is currently required for admission to most two- and four-year colleges in this country. What this means in effect is that our colleges will become expensive high schools.  

College readiness tests based on Common Core’s standards will play two significant roles.  First, they will guarantee the presence of credit-bearing courses with low academic expectations in mathematics, reading (English), and possibly other freshman subjects. Second, they will change more than the college courses they are enrolled in.  How, we do not yet know. But it seems logical to expect large numbers of relatively low-performing high school students who have been declared college-ready based on a test with low expectations to have an impact on the other students in the college courses they are entitled to enroll in for credit. 

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