Making the Most of Common Core
It's important to view the forthcoming assessments in a way that fulfills their purpose. Context is critical.
Many states will receive results from assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards for the first time this fall. These assessments of students' progress, developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, will enable us to conduct better comparative analytics than ever before.
Conversations tend to revolve around how high or low scores are and what districts and schools should do in response. In this first year for assessment scores, however, it is particularly important to view the results within an appropriate context, linked to other metrics. Indeed, for the assessments to fulfill their purpose of informing educators, schools, districts and states about what students know and how to improve their progress, decision-makers must ask some key questions. These five questions frame the assessments in terms of both critical inputs and other, relevant outcomes that reflect how well schools are meeting all students' needs:
1. How well are teachers prepared to teach Common Core content? The Common Core State Standards were designed to shift instruction and learning away from passive intake and rote repetition and toward deep content knowledge and critical thinking. Teachers thus need not only solid training, content expertise and classroom-management experience but also the ability to nurture and assess so-called non-cognitive skills. They also need time for collaboration, which improves both instruction and school culture. Districts can gauge their readiness through metrics including how much professional development teachers received, the year that the district transitioned to a Common Core-aligned curriculum, and surveys of teacher perspectives on curriculum, professional development and scheduling.
2. How well do school leadership and other facets of the school support strong, deep instruction? Teachers operate within a complex ecosystem of factors that contribute to (or impede) teaching and learning. These include special education and English-language-learner support, reading and math specialists, counselors and librarians. Teachers' skills are bolstered by strong leaders with a clear vision for the school and rapport with its staff. Yet schools' and districts' ability to attract and retain such leaders varies greatly. Districts might begin by collecting and comparing data on leadership longevity, teacher turnover and staff engagement. And because growth on assessments rests on the strength of each of these factors, districts should determine their availability and sufficiency in each school and compare accordingly.
3. To what extent does the school comprehensively address student needs? Extensive research documents the impact on academic achievement of poverty-related family and community factors such as lack of school readiness, disproportionate physical and mental health needs, and summer learning loss. Assessing test scores' meaning thus requires understanding how these factors affect them. Districts should, for example, determine how many students, in which schools, receive subsidized meals; are immigrants; live with one parent and/or in foster care; are homeless; have diagnosed mental/emotional health problems; or have interacted with the criminal-justice system. Districts can engage community leaders to connect schools to key resources -- from health clinics and social workers to enriching after-school and summer opportunities -- to ensure that every student's strengths are capitalized on and needs met.
4. How well are parents engaged as education partners? Evidence affirms the critical role parents play in school success. Yet parent engagement often gets more lip service than policy support. Partnering with parents -- by hosting coffee hours, inviting them into classrooms and encouraging attendance at parent-teacher conferences and PTA events -- can significantly boost both test scores and teacher practice.
5. How do district and state policies support or limit Common Core success? Leadership from the top is essential for complex initiatives to succeed. A change in superintendents and/or central office leadership could affect rollout of the standards. The local school board plays a pivotal role, and sufficient and equitable funding for schools is a foundational requirement. Unfortunately, budget cuts to education over the past decade have exacerbated what was already, in most states, a highly inequitable system for funding schools. Any examination of test scores must take into account the state's role in ensuring that schools have sufficient funds to support new, higher standards. It must also ask whether the board has allocated sufficient resources to support implementation, whether union contracts build in time for collaboration, and whether the evaluation process supports (or punishes) teachers based on whom they teach rather than how.
Student test scores are products of all of these factors, and should be treated accordingly. By using these five questions to guide their assessment of test scores policymakers can help states and districts ensure an enriching, equitable and effective education for every student.