Briefing Report: Common Core State Standards and SMARTER Balanced Testing

Coming to a School Near You
Thursday, April 25, 2013

Common Core State Standards

Academic content standards describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject in each grade.  In California, the State Board of Education (SBE) is charged with adopting standards for all students, from kindergarten through high school.  California adopted academic standards in the late 1990’s that were regarded as among the nation’s best.  Since then calls have been made to update the content, refocus the goals, and change what is learned in each grade.

In 2009 the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) resolved to develop a set of standards that would help prepare students for success in college and career.  These would become known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  In 2010, SB X5 1 required the SBE to adopt new mathematics and English language arts (ELA) academic standards aligned at least 85 percent to the CCSS (the remainder could be state-specified).  Since 2010, 45 states have adopted the CCSS for English and math.

SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium

The value of academic content standards is much greater if student performance toward meeting these standards is measured so that, if necessary, changes to curriculum, instruction, and other aspects of the educational delivery system may be made to improve pupil achievement.  Toward that end, California in 2011 joined some two dozen other states in the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).   (“SMARTER" stands for "Summative Multi-state Assessment Resources for Teachers and Educational Researchers.") SBAC has been working collaboratively to develop a student assessment system aligned with the CCSS.

SBAC will offer online computer adaptive summative assessments that give a snapshot of student performance.  Summative assessments can be used to describe student achievement and growth of student learning as part of instructional program evaluation while also informing school, district, and state accountability systems. It will measure English-language arts and mathematics in grades three through eight and grade eleven across the full range of the CCSS.  In addition, SBAC will offer optional interim and formative assessments that help teachers identify the specific needs of each student so they can help students progress toward proficiency.  Some school districts are currently pilot testing these assessments, and field testing is scheduled for 2013–14.  Beginning with the 2014–15 school year, under the current plan, SBAC’s tests will be operational and ready to use as federal accountability assessments.

Opportunities and Issues with CCSS and SBAC

Advocates for the CCSS promote their cross-state portability (valuable for transient children), a potentially greater instructional materials selection, a more refined response to what pupils need to know in what grades, and a focus on content that is aimed at preparing pupils for both college and career.  SBAC backers promote its more personalized assessment approach (taken by pupils on a computer using a program that responds to their answers to select future questions), the inclusion of performance-based questions (such as essay writing) rather than multiple choice, and more timely results for parents and teachers.

Critics of the CCSS point to a reduction of emphasis on core knowledge (versus concepts), greater emphasis on “informational reading” (versus traditional canonical literary reading), greater emphasis on subjective measures (as in the grading of essays), and a potential muddling of the curriculum based on the goal to prepare pupils for both college and career (Harvard or Heald? Phlebotomist or physician?).  Some are concerned that the federal government will ultimately manipulate states’ adoption of CCSS to tighten Washington’s grip on education content and delivery in a way that infringes on federalism and parental rights.

California’s Challenge

As of now, California’s SBE has adopted the CCSS and committed to using SBAC as our assessment provider.  But in order to implement the CCSS, pupils need textbooks that reflect these standards and teachers need training to implement them.  This costs money to do correctly.  For example, in the late 1990s, after the last standards adoption, California spent $250 million a year for four consecutive years to purchase new standards aligned textbooks.  This time, school districts are simply being authorized to adopt instructional materials they think are aligned, and encouraged to bring their teachers up to speed. 

Similarly, the SBAC assessment system, which in spring 2015 will test some three million pupils, each using a computer and within a limited testing window, poses new challenges.  Software and hardware will have to be available, purchased, and operational, as will sufficient facilities at each school in which pupils can take the exams, and bandwidth at each to handle the simultaneous workload.  This also will cost money.  In addition, since all pupils cannot take the exam at the same time, what guarantee exists that all pupils will have been given equal instructional time to be prepared for the exam?  This is the stuff from which equal rights lawsuits are made.  Finally, what to do with the results?  California’s accountability system is informed largely by test scores.  Although that is changing, tests will still play an important role.  But it is unclear how we will transition from the current system to a new one, or even what a new one will look like.

So far, the Governor has not committed specifically to fund the move to new standards, new assessments, or a new accountability system beyond suggesting that districts pay for new costs using funding obtained through his proposed local control funding formula.  So far the Legislature has held informational hearings and passed modest measures to authorize the transition.  In the meantime, school districts have largely been left to figure it all out and to make it work.  Whether this approach improves student learning and school accountability remains to be seen.

For more information on this report or other Education issues, contact Roger Mackensen, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.