New Test, New Stress: Exam Promises Headaches as Schools Adjust to Common Core's Latest Challenge

Sep 1, 2014

A computer lab at North Elementary School in Marshall
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
 Benjamin Churchill has been spending extra time with his daughter at the computer lately. Quinn, 8, will be taking her first state exam this school year, and unlike the tests her dad took, this one won’t require a No. 2 pencil. 

In the final move of a three-year statewide transition, the new tests will be entirely online — and plenty of people are worried about it. Churchill is an assistant superintendent in Community Unit School District 300, which serves more than 20,000 students across 15 communities in northwestern Illinois. He says he can’t speak for students district- wide, but as a parent, he worries his daughter doesn’t have the keyboarding skills to accurately demonstrate her knowledge on the test.

While students historically have been counseled through proper bubbling on an answer sheet, they now will need keyboarding and mouse skills to prove themselves. 

“We don’t, in our district, have time designated for keyboarding,” says Churchill, whose daughter attends Liberty Elementary School in Carpentersville. “Where do we fit that in during the school day? That’s going to be an issue that we and other districts have to address.” 

Illinois’ new exam is the product of a multistate testing consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). It is tied to the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math, which Illinois adopted in 2010. The earlier standards were written more than a decade before, and state education officials had already begun to review them when governors and state education chiefs teamed up on the initiative they hoped would bring high-quality education to every student in the country.

Robin Steans is the executive director of the education policy and advocacy organization Advance Illinois. She believes the new standards will mean concrete improvements to education as they provide a driving force for better instruction.

“That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” Steans says. “The more significant the change, the more anxiety it can produce, even if the upside is very, very significant and real.” 

So far Illinois educators largely describe worry and frustration when faced with the looming assessment, which is the ultimate motivation to align instruction with the now four-year-old standards. But Steans expects the growing pains to subside in a few years and leave Illinois schools in a better place. 

The PARCC assessment replaces the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, for grades three through eight, and the Prairie State Achievement Exam, or PSAE, for 11th graders.

In a welcome-back letter at the start of the 2013-14 school year, State Superintendent Christopher Koch explained the need for a new test, calling the ISAT a poor indicator of college and career readiness. In 2012, 82 percent of elementary students met or exceeded standards according to ISAT results. That same year, Koch said, only 51 percent of 11th graders hit the mark on a more rigorous high school exam.

“Students did not fall behind when they left grade school,” Koch wrote, “but they faced a higher bar.”

The 2014 ISAT had a new set of questions aligned to the Common Core’s more rigorous standards about what students should know at the end of each grade level. Still, though, the test looked familiar. Students bubbled in their answers just as they always had. This school year, students will face an entirely different test aligned not only to the content expectations of the Common Core, but created to assess students’ ability to demonstrate knowledge in new ways.

The English language arts portion asks students to write analytical essays, defend their arguments and master more nonfiction text. The math portions force students to explain how they arrived at an answer and reason through math problems in real-world contexts. There will be far fewer opportunities for lucky guesses with multiple choice.

Steans points to the new test questions as extra reasons for educators to teach in more complex ways.

“Teaching to the test has such a bad rap because the tests aren’t good,” Steans says. “If the test is actually much more consistent with what I really want to be teaching, it’s not such a bad thing.” 

PARCC is available in a paper format even though it was developed as an online exam. Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the state board of education, says districts will be able to offer the paper exam to certain grade levels, but not to individual students based on concerns like Churchill’s about keyboarding skills. At this point, districts will be expected to use the online version if they have the technological capacity to do. That capacity, though, is a real issue for many cash-strapped districts.

The Illinois State Board of Education is still collecting data about technology readiness, but Anton Inglese, chair of the Educational Technology Council of Illinois, says very few districts are prepared to move to an all-online format. The challenge is two-fold: Districts need the devices and they need the infrastructure to support the testing environment. Some districts have enough computers or iPads, but asking all students to get online at the same time for testing day won’t be possible because of network limitations.

Inglese is also the chief information officer and assistant superintendent of Batavia Public School District 101, about 40 miles west of Chicago. He says Batavia schools have been dedicated to expanding their tech infrastructure for decades.

“The school districts who made investments and stayed on the front of those investments with tech will be prepared,” Inglese says, “but those who didn’t will be very behind.”

It is concerns like these that have frustrated even those educators who agree the improved standards ultimately will be good for students.

The Common Core State Standards initiative started out as a collaboration among state school chiefs and governors along with the nonprofit education reform organization Achieve. It was heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and then lauded by the federal Department of Education as a necessary remedy for educational inequities nationwide.

The support from Gates and involvement of legislators and testing companies doesn’t sit well with some.

David Root, superintendent of Williamsville District 15, says he has had a hard time selling the standards to teachers and others in his schools. Williamsville is a high-performing district with few risk factors, like poverty, among its students. Yet teachers must overhaul their practices to align to the new standards, and the district has to pay for it.

“Professional development comes at a cost,” Root says. “The computers that they expect us to use for the PARCC assessment come at a cost.”

Root calls the whole initiative an unfunded mandate. While the state received federal money in part because it adopted the standards, the low-need district won’t see it. And just like other districts in Illinois, Williamsville is dealing with the consequences of reduced levels of state aid and greater programming requirements. Because of the Common Core, District 15 has had to shoulder the costs of sending teachers to professional development conferences — including travel, registration expenses, hotels and substitute teacher pay — as well as the purchase of new instructional materials.

The Illinois legislature has not allocated any extra money to schools making this shift. And new textbooks and tech infrastructure are not cheap, especially in the aggregate.

The Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning, nonpartisan, privately funded research organization, tagged the seven-year cost of professional development at $5.3 billion nationwide. Add to that $2.5 billion for textbooks and instructional materials and $6.9 billion for technology infrastructure and support.

Defenders of the Common Core argue the costs are worth it to revolutionize education in this country. The new standards are supposed to hold all students in every state to the same high expectations that will put them on a level playing field with the top students globally. U.S. students everywhere will spend more time on critical thinking rather than rote memorization.

Before the Common Core, state standards varied wildly from one place to another, and state exams were often accused of being watered down so school districts could meet No Child Left Behind progress goals. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit think tank that advocates school choice, found that the Common Core State Standards improved on the English language arts standards in 37 states and the math standards in 39 states. They were at least as good as the existing standards in nearly every other state.

Churchill, from District 300, has spent the last three years helping align the district’s math and English language arts curricula to the Common Core and says much of the opposition from parents in northwest suburban Kane County has been easily diffused by more discussion.

“When we talk about the standards themselves and what we’re expecting students to learn and be able to do, I haven’t talked to any parent that has opposed those skills that we’re teaching students,” Churchill says.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia initially signed onto the project, adopting both sets of standards as their own. Minnesota legislators adopted only the English Language Arts set. In several states, including Illinois, the initiative came up when education officials were already considering or in the middle of revisions to their existing standards. In the last six months, however, a handful of states have dropped the Common Core in the face of fierce political opposition that Illinois has mostly sidestepped. With their reversal, officials have been tasked with creating new sets of standards amid scrutiny from the left and the right. Indiana’s rushed set of new standards closely mirror the Common Core, an uncomfortable reality for officials touting its independence.

Part of the opposition has centered on the federal involvement in the process. PARCC and another testing consortium both received federal dollars to develop the exams and, before that, states were highly favored in a competition for federal money if they adopted the Common Core. While it wasn’t a requirement — states just had to adopt standards that the higher education institutions in their state agreed would make kids college and career ready — the Common Core State Standards became the preferred method of showing such rigor.

Populist anger accumulated as the origin of the Common Core became twisted. Educating students is a job of the states. People resented the “federal curriculum,” though the standards were developed through a state-led initiative and stopped short of telling schools how to teach. “Standards” outline what students should know at each grade level. “Curricula” outline how that content should be delivered on a daily basis.

According to the Illinois School Code, one job of the State Board of Education is to establish standards for students taking state tests. For decades, teachers have been aligning their classroom lessons to meet such standards. But those weren’t identical nationwide, they weren’t paid for by the Gates Foundation, and they weren’t championed by an unpopular president.

Selling the Common Core quickly became a public relations disaster. Beyond accusations that the whole initiative was a federal overreach, teachers’ unions have leapt to defend their members from accountability measures tied to student performance on the new exams. In Illinois the number of students meeting or exceeding standards has plummeted since the state board of education increased the difficulty of the questions and the score needed to demonstrate mastery.

With the new test set to debut in March, students will be tested on content that is supposed to build on earlier years’ lessons, even though most of their prior instruction wasn’t guided by the Common Core.

Carol Caref, a research consultant with the Chicago Teachers Union, points to this situation as a personal gripe with the implementation. She says the rollout should have been one year at a time, starting in kindergarten and moving up as the initial group of kids aged.

“It seems to be driven by the needs of the education business community,” Caref says. “They’re very interested in having common standards because then they can create materials that can sell nationwide.”

Many in the business world will be clear winners here, including those marketing education materials, and technology companies that will get to fill district orders for new devices with greater bandwidth as districts are forced to push their technology acquisitions into high speed.

And those without the money to buy enough new computers or tablets will have to stretch the testing window through several weeks. David Lett, Superintendent of Pana Community School District 8, which is about 40 miles southeast of Springfield, says his district expanded its bandwidth enough this summer to offer the test online but would need to cycle students through computer labs to do so. That means those labs will be closed for classroom use for the two four-week testing windows , which are only separated by a three-week break.

Lett, too, has another concern. Even if the district’s technology functions perfectly, what about the new testing program? Some Pana students participated in a pilot for the PARCC exam last spring and found a “glitch-ridden” program that could “potentially frustrate kids and teachers,” according to Lett. PARCC has already started making adjustments to the assessment based on that pilot, but Lett and other superintendents worry the technology could prevent students from displaying the knowledge they truly have.

Many education leaders, though, look at the Common Core as the latest national initiative in a line of them, most recently No Child Left Behind. No one argues NCLB got everything right.

“We’re in this, floundering all over the place,” says Root, of Williamsville. “In the meantime, I think this is a step in the right direction, but there are some hang-ups and it’s going to take some time to get through it.”

Tara García Mathewson is a Chicago-based free-lance writer specializing in education issues.

Illinois Issues, September 2014