I do want a standardized test, BUT

I opted my kids out of the state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test last spring, joining the thousands of students and parents who felt it was fatally flawed — but the truth is that I do want my kids to take a standardized test that measures mastery of Common Core standards in math. Ironically, though, despite the millions upon millions of dollars that have been spent on Common Core assessments, the kind of test I think my kids should have does not seem to be available.

Let me back up a minute and talk about what the Common Core standards are. They’re a set of national standards, pushed on states across the country essentially by the private sector, that are clearly delineated. In the opinion of many education activists, they’re a complete mess. I won’t comment on that just now. I will say that having clearly delineated national standards in math makes sense to me. If everybody knows what’s supposed to be taught and when, that is a win. You can build off that knowledge to differentiate instruction, and you can keep track of what each child does and doesn’t know.

But oddly, that’s not what’s happening. The general concept was for the Common Core standards to be adopted by the states and for the private sector to start making textbooks and assessments and online curricula and so forth. In other words, free-market chaos.

So on the national and state level, our government is pouring enormous amounts of money into tests whose only practical purpose is to compare the performance of teachers, schools, school districts, and states according to whether or not the students have mastered Common Core standards. These are high-stakes tests. Because of the high stakes, their content is not open for public inspection, and we can’t evaluate their quality. Also, they are summative tests, given at the end of the school year to determine what was taught that year. In the case of the SBAC, the results were not available until well into the next school year.

What schools actually need are formative or interim assessments that can be used in the classroom, like we had in the olden days when schools had textbooks and the publishing company provided tests and quizzes.

But Common Core adoption has broken that this year, at least for Seattle Public Schools elementary kids. It shouldn’t have. Washington State has always had standards, and textbook companies have always adapted their curriculum to those standards, more or less. When Common Core came out, the same thing happened — apparently. The district spent several years on a textbook adoption process for elementary school and ultimately chose Math in Focus, which was supposed to be aligned with the Common Core.

This year, though, the school district has dictated that teachers abandon the “scope and sequence” (the content, plus the order in which subjects are taught) of Math in Focus and instead use a district-made “scope and sequence” document.

That breaks all the classroom tests from the Math in Focus textbooks–but doesn’t replace them with anything.

Why did they mandate the new scope and sequence? I would hazard a guess that they were told, or decided, that Math in Focus wasn’t the right textbook to prepare schools for the SBAC. Were they right? Were they wrong? Who knows! I bet that, as often happens, the private sector got way too much input in our schools.

This is the third year in a row that elementary school curriculum has been changed at our school. The district spent two years planning for a curriculum adoption. Two years ago, our school piloted a textbook called My Math. Then the district adopted Math in Focus, and we used that. Now we’re still kinda using Math in Focus but only as far as it matches the “scope and sequence.” How the teachers can adapt to all these changes, I have no idea.

And how is it going to be assessed? Probably with the SBAC. We’ve been promised formative assessments, but the tests the district got weren’t available to all schools, had serious privacy issues, and didn’t satisfy most teachers.

It’s a muddle for everybody, advanced learners included. Our school offers ALOs (advanced learning opportunities) for kids who qualify or just need extra challenge. By the end of last year, I figure that my fourth grade student had mastered all of the fourth grade curriculum, most of the fifth, and some sixth and seventh. In other words: all over the map. Next year, under normal circumstances, she’d enter sixth grade doing seventh grade math. But will she be ready?

Without appropriate assessments, I don’t see how her teachers could possibly know the answer to that question, or even what to teach her. Getting a handle on what parts of fifth grade curriculum she has and has not mastered is hard enough.

It didn’t have to be this hard. The SBAC and Amplify tests were designed top-down, to be sold to upper (mis)management. But for a whole lot less money, tests that gave the information we need could have been designed from the bottom up by teachers who are actually in the classroom with kids.

Here are the qualities I wish a Common Core assessment could have:

  1. Open and transparent (no high-stakes);
  2. Easily administered and quickly scored;
  3. Quickly given;
  4. Able to measure the curriculum in discrete chunks;
  5. Able to measure content above and below grade level;
  6. Easily modified for disability accommodations.

If such a test existed, then chances are, I wouldn’t opt my kids out.

Should I hold my breath? I don’t know. I doubt the ability of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to bring it to me, but efforts are being made by other organizations. For my own child, Khan Academy is a reasonable choice. But it’s not for everyone, especially kids with certain types of disabilities or kids without access to computers. There are also organizations like OERCommons and others that collect educational materials that are licensed for free use (though with no guarantee of quality). And the New York Department of Education appears to have done something clever in designing and delivering its own educational content.

But on the other hand, even in the best of times, good tests are hard to design and time-consuming to take and to grade.

All I know is, my family needs appropriate assessments for sixth grade math. And we need them now.

– Kristin

(Post updated 12/4/2015)

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