The Common Core State Standards are a set of curricular standards, as the name implies, common to all the states participating (45, plus District of Columbia and several territories) and to which all of their students will eventually be held accountable through a new set of statewide assessments. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded 330 million dollars to two assessment consortia to create Common Core State Standards (CCSS)-aligned assessments. One consortium is Smarter Balanced; the second one is PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career). States that had agreed to implement the standards began signing on with one or the other of the consortia for their new, statewide assessments, which are to be ready for administration in the 2014-15 school-year. Comparisons about the types of assessments, questions, and procedures coming from each group have been frequent. As early as 2012, sample questions were being released, and teachers were scrambling to get first-hand looks.
Flashback to the 1990’s. Experienced educators can remember when there was no such thing as “state standards” for school districts, and the only really big assessments given district-wide were standardized tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills at the elementary level and the ACT or SAT for high-school students. My, how times have changed! Gradually, each state’s Department of Education began to adopt standards for their school districts, followed a year or two (or more) later with required statewide assessments that were supposed to be aligned to, and therefore measurements of student success on those standards. Individual schools, as well as whole districts, were then judged on the scores resulting from these tests. The language of educators from one state to another was constantly filled with acronyms that hinted at their locale; for example: CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program); PAWS (Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students); MEA (Maine Educational Assessment); STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness); ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test).
Today, the acronym is CCSS. No, this does not yet refer to the dreaded set of assessments that are in the works, but to the standards themselves—which are daunting in their own right. Just interpreting the standards in order to create local, teachable curriculum has had educators wringing their hands, and there are often little tremors in their voices when they ask: what will the assessments be like? The fear of these upcoming assessments can sometimes be paralyzing to a school district as it tries to predict when assessments will be released, what types of questions will be on them, and determine how to prepare students and teachers.
As with any educational reform effort, the CCSS movement isn’t without controversy. The Republican National Committee has passed a resolution condemning the Common Core and its accompanying assessments. Alabama and as many as ten other states are reconsidering their adoption of the Common Core. What does all this mean? What should a school district do? Should you wait and see, or do you forge ahead on your own?
The first answer is to stop jumping on and off bandwagons. This is why decision-making bodies such as a Curriculum Coordinating Council (CCC) are so important to a district. A CCC should have a long-range-plan, and make decisions about how best to implement it. CCC members stay abreast of educational news and current trends, but they make careful evaluations about whether new actions support or short-circuit the district’s plan and pathways. This includes making decisions about curriculum and assessments. If your district doesn’t have a CCC or similar decision-making, action-taking body that is representative of all district stakeholders, your first step should be to get one organized now.
The second answer is definitely to use standards – not as curriculum – but as guidelines for developing your own curriculum. When that curriculum is completed, develop local common assessments aligned to the curriculum. If the curriculum is focused, rigorous, and clearly written in terms of student results, and if the local common assessments are clearly aligned – then educators need not worry about which set of assessments their state will choose or what happens to be on the assessment. They will already know what their students’ capabilities are, they will already have been providing extra instruction and practice where needed, and they will use their own assessment data to chart next steps.
Educators in your district know their students and care about their students’ success. Create a climate in your district so educators also know their knowledge, expertise, and professionalism are valued. When that climate exists, educators will do an outstanding job of creating local curriculums and assessments. External measurements will then reflect that quality.