Common Core Could Improve Quality of High School Assessments

Kelsey Sheehy

The phrase "Common Core" is on the minds of high school teachers across the country as schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia begin implementing the new education standards.

Designed to set a consistent benchmark for achievement in math and English, the Common Core State Standards aim to prepare students for college and the workplace by using in-depth lessons to build critical thinking and analytical skills.

[See why high school students need to think, not memorize.]

New standards also mean new standardized assessments to measure student progress. The first of these exams will be administered in the spring of 2015. States currently spend roughly $1.7 billion each year developing and delivering standardized tests for students from grade school through high school, according to a report released last week by the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

These tests vary widely by state, but share a common thread: teachers think the exams are ineffective.

"Teachers have radically lost faith in assessment. That, in my judgment, is a substantial crisis," David Coleman, president of the College Board, said during a panel discussion at Brookings. "Because if teachers lose faith in assessment, parents will lose faith in assessment. People trust their teachers."

In fact, only 23 percent of high school teachers believe state-required tests give an accurate picture of student achievement, and only 36 percent say their students take those exams seriously, according to a report by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. More than 10,000 public school teachers in grades K-12 were surveyed for the Foundation's March report.

"We have a need in this country to redeem assessment in the hearts and minds of teachers and parents; otherwise the accountability systems we are building will never have the depth of support they need," Coleman added.

The movement to common assessment gives states an opportunity to build this support by creating innovative exams that truly measure student achievement, experts say. That means moving toward "longer, more thoughtful exams," Coleman said.

[Find out whether multiple choice questions pass the test.]

But creating this sort of exam is challenging amid concern that testing infringes upon instruction time, Jeff Nellhaus, director of PARCC Assessment at Achieve, said in an interview with U.S. News. PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is one of two consortia developing assessments aligned to the new standards.

"Testing time is obviously an issue," he said. "We want the tasks to really bring out the Common Core, and you can't do it with a quick, multiple choice test. It's not going to work."

Common Core assessments will be longer than most current state assessments, Nellhaus added.

"How much longer is feasible? That's something we're trying out and working on right now."

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