Since 1999 California has had a set of standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. How teachers teach and students learn is based on local district and school policy, but there is state accountability to ensure that students are learning to these expectations.
Three years ago, California, along with more than 40 other states, adopted the Common Core State Standards. These new standards were developed by states to better align to college and workforce expectations, and emphasize deep understanding of key concepts.
Making the transition from the old standards to using the new Common Core standards isn’t easy. Over the past three years, we have expected schools and teachers to learn the new standards and pedagogical approaches to make them useful while still working as hard as they can to prepare students using the old standards – because the state and federal government held us accountable for how well students did on the state testing system aligned to the old standards.
To ensure that schools are on track in teaching to the Common Core and students are on track to meet these new expectations, we need a new assessment tool aligned to the Common Core. California is a lead in a multi-state consortium designing this new assessment system which is ready to be piloted in schools across the country.
The California Legislature recently sent the governor a bill, Assembly Bill 484, that will scrap the requirement that California schools use an assessment system aligned to the old standards and that will allow schools to make the jump to the new system aligned to the Common Core this school year.
That’s good news. If California were to continue using the current assessments, we would be telling schools to continue teaching to the old standards. Sure, we might tell schools to transition to the Common Core, but by clinging to old assessments we would send a pretty clear signal that schools shouldn’t take this too seriously.
Giving schools, teachers and students the chance to test-drive the new assessments in a pilot phase this year helps them understand the new expectations we have for 21st-century teaching and learning before the results are used for accountability purposes.
This trial run gives teachers room and incentive to begin to develop curriculum and create formative assessment in their classrooms that better align to the needs of their students without fear of distraction or disconnect. We are pleased that Gov. Jerry Brown, the state superintendent of public instruction and the California Legislature agree on this point.
The bad news about Assembly Bill 484 is that it allows only some of California’s more than 6 million students to take some of the new tests, and some students won’t have a chance to try out the new assessments at all. The governor should fix this before signing the legislation.
Federal law requires every state to assess students in both English language arts and math annually. If California limits the number of students who can take the new assessment, this position could lead to California losing millions in federal education funds. But even more concerning than the potential federal penalty, this failure would be a missed opportunity to improve instruction.
This limit actually stymies important changes our schools should be making to prepare for the Common Core.
Making the transition to using the Common Core to guide what happens in every classroom will not be simple. Having the opportunity to field-test both the math and the English language arts assessment will give schools, teachers and students a taste of the new expectations and prepare them for full implementation.
For example, students will take the new assessments on computers, rather than old-fashioned paper-and-pencil tests. Following the field test year, the new testing system will have the added advantage of being able to adapt while students are taking the test, thus individually tailoring questions based on each student’s answer. This computer-adaptive feature will give teachers critical feedback on how to help each child.
Many districts don’t know if they have the technology infrastructure in place to support computer-based assessments. Having the opportunity to field-test the full assessment in every classroom without academic consequences gives districts an enormous opportunity to prepare.
The California state budget included more than a billion dollars to help districts transition to the Common Core State Standards, and districts can use the money for new computers or other needed technology. It just makes sense to empower schools so they can make informed choices about how to spend these resources.
All students deserve to be prepared for successful futures. California should not squander the chance to jump-start the transition to the Common Core State Standards. The 10 CORE districts representing 20 percent of California’s students urge the governor to sign AB 484, but only if he adds resources to ensure that every student in California can take both these new assessments, giving all of California the opportunity to learn from the results.
Michael Hanson is president of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) board of directors and superintendent of Fresno Unified School District.