A co­nun­drum for Com­mon Core

RE­VIV­ING THE RACE TO THE BOT­TOM? Ohio chooses to in­ter­pret test re­sults dif­fer­ently

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY EMMA BROWN AND LYN­D­SEY LAY­TON emma.brown@wash­post.com lyn­d­sey.lay­ton@wash­post.com

As the first wave of new Com­mon Core test scores trickle out, Ohio pol­i­cy­mak­ers did some­thing that threat­ens to un­der­mine the rea­son why Ohio and dozens of other states agreed to a set of na­tional K-12 aca­demic stan­dards in the first place.

Ohio of­fi­cials opted to in­ter­pret their test re­sults dif­fer­ently than other states, in­flat­ing the per­for­mance of their stu­dents and mak­ing it tricky to com­pare Ohio with the rest of the coun­try.

It is the latest sign that a cen­tral prom­ise of Com­mon Core — that states would have the same math and read­ing stan­dards and use the same tests — is fur­ther un­rav­el­ing.

Some states have an­nounced they are with­draw­ing from the com­mu­nal aca­demic ef­fort and will craft their own tests from now on, mak­ing fu­ture in­ter­state com­par­isons nearly im­pos­si­ble. And in a move that could be em­u­lated by oth­ers, Ohio has de­cided that stu­dents don’t have to meet the com­mon col­lege- and ca­reer-ready stan­dards to be deemed pro­fi­cient — they just have to “ap­proach” those stan­dards.

The re­sult, Com­mon Core op­po­nents and even some boost­ers agree, is another step to­ward a re­turn to the kind of games­man­ship with sta­tis­tics — and ex­ag­ger­ated sense of stu­dent achieve­ment — that the pro­gram was de­signed to erad­i­cate.

And that’s dis­cour­ag­ing for peo­ple who ad­vo­cated for Com­mon Core, said Fred­er­ick Hess, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy re­search at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “Part of the rea­son they wanted the Com­mon Core was they were wor­ried about a race to the bot­tom, where you would juice up your pro­fi­ciency rates be­cause you didn’t want your neigh­bor­ing state to look so much bet­ter than you,” Hess said.

Now Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich — a can­di­date for the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion — can boast about Ohio’s stu­dent achieve­ment, Hess said. “And the oth­ers are won­der­ing ‘ Why am I a sucker?’ Once the sec­ond gover­nor fol­lows, and the third and fifth, that’s how you get back to the race to the bot­tom,” he said.

Mil­lions of stu­dents in more than half the states last spring took one of two new Com­mon Core tests, PARCC (Part­ner­ship for As­sess­ment of Readi­ness for Col­lege and Ca­reers) and Smarter Bal­anced, that were de­vel­oped with the help of $320 mil­lion from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The new tests were widely ex­pected to be more dif­fi­cult than most states’ old tests, and pro­fi­ciency rates were ex­pected to be far lower. That has proved true, ac­cord­ing to re­sults re­leased so far.

On Cal­i­for­nia’s old test, for ex­am­ple, more than half of the state’s stu­dents scored high enough to be con­sid­ered pro­fi­cient in read­ing and math; on the new Smarter Bal­anced exam, 44 per­cent were pro­fi­cient in read­ing and 33 per­cent were pro­fi­cient in math.

Com­mon Core sup­port­ers say the new tests are giv­ing par­ents and pol­i­cy­mak­ers a more hon­est view of whether stu­dents are ad­e­quately pre­pared for col­lege and ca­reers af­ter high school. Com­pared with the coun­try’s only na­tion­wide test, the Na­tional As­sess­ment for Ed­u­ca­tional Progress, most states have a low bar for pro­fi­ciency in math and read­ing. Ohio’s is among the low­est.

About 80 per­cent of Ohio stu­dents were pro­fi­cient on pre­vi­ous state math and read­ing tests. But only about 40 per­cent scored high enough to meet PARCC’s na­tional def­i­ni­tion of pro­fi­cient, ac­cord­ing to pre­lim­i­nary re­sults re­leased by the state depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Ohio’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of its re­sults, how­ever, 65 per­cent of its stu­dents are pro­fi­cient.

“We’re sort of eas­ing into this,” Jim Wright, of the Ohio Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, told the state board of ed­u­ca­tion on Sept. 15. “There has been a lot of press out there say­ing there’s go­ing to be a cliff that we fall off of,” he added, re­fer­ring to the ex­pected testscore drop. By choos­ing to de­fine pro­fi­ciency dif­fer­ently, he said, “there’s not that precipice.”

The de­ci­sion’s main im­pact is on how Ohio’s stu­dent achieve­ment is per­ceived pub­licly. Be­cause of the shift to Com­mon Core, test scores from 2015 and 2016 will not be tied to con­se­quences for schools or teach­ers in most cases, ac­cord­ing to state ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials.

Crit­ics of stan­dard­ized test­ing point to Ohio’s move as ev­i­dence that de­cid­ing how to score ex­ams is an in­her­ently sub­jec­tive de­ci­sion.

“There is no in­de­pen­dent ev­i­dence that ‘ pro­fi­cient’ is the level that’s re­quired to per­form ad­e­quately in col­lege or ca­reers,” said Robert Scha­ef­fer of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Fair & Open Test­ing. “The fact that PARCC’s new lev­els dif­fer from Ohio’s doesn’t mean that ei­ther one is cor­rect. . . . The way achieve­ment lev­els have been set is a bunch of guys and gals sit­ting around a ta­ble. And it’s al­ways been a pro­foundly po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal process.”

PARCC di­vides stu­dents into five per­for­mance lev­els, from 1 to 5, and to be con­sid­ered pro­fi­cient, stu­dents must score at least a Level 4: “Met ex­pec­ta­tions.”

But Ohio ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials de­cided that stu­dents who score lower, at Level 3, also will be con­sid­ered pro­fi­cient.

State of­fi­cials said they are not try­ing to in­flate stu­dent per­for­mance. In­stead, they said they had no choice be­cause a long­stand­ing state law re­quires tests to di­vide stu­dents into five per­for­mance lev­els and spells out what they must be called. Un­der that state law, “pro­fi­cient” is the name that must be used for stu­dents who score at Level 3.

The state plans to re­port how many stu­dents scored in each of the five per­for­mance lev­els, mak­ing com­par­isons pos­si­ble with other PARCC states. “Ohio has not low­ered the bar in any way,” said Joe An­drews, press sec­re­tary for Ka­sich, who has been a strong sup­porter of Com­mon Core.

But the du­el­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions are likely to be con­fus­ing for many par­ents and vot­ers.

Par­ents will re­ceive a re­port card that tells them how their chil­dren fared ac­cord­ing to PARCC, and how they fared ac­cord­ing to Ohio. A third-grader who an­swered one-third of math ques­tions cor­rectly? “Pro­fi­cient,” ac­cord­ing to the state, but only “ap­proach­ing ex­pec­ta­tions” ac­cord­ing to PARCC.

“If you are a par­ent, what are you sup­posed to be­lieve?” said Karen Nus­sle, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the pro-Core Col­lab­o­ra­tive for Stu­dent Suc­cess, who has been crit­i­cal of what she calls a lack of trans­parency on Ohio’s part. “It’s go­ing to be su­per con­fus­ing.”

Of the states that ad­min­is­tered PARCC in the spring, Ohio and Illi­nois have re­leased pre­lim­i­nary re­sults. The rest plan to make them public through­out the fall.

Most PARCC states say they will use the achieve­ment lev­els set by PARCC, but a cou­ple, in­clud­ing New Jersey, have yet to de­cide.

The Com­mon Core stan­dards and tests have be­come a po­lit­i­cal light­ning rod dur­ing the past two years as many con­ser­va­tives have come to see them as a sym­bol of fed­eral over­reach. The move­ment to the new stan­dards was stateled, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fered pow­er­ful in­cen­tives — in­clud­ing through the Race to the Top grant com­pe­ti­tion — for states to buy in.

Ohio al­ready has de­cided to drop out of PARCC next year and craft its own exam. Three other states have done the same, leav­ing just seven states com­mit­ted to PARCC in 2016, down from 26 in 2010. Fif­teen states will ad­min­is­ter Smarter Bal­anced next year, down from 18 this year.

With such low par­tic­i­pa­tion, mean­ing­ful com­par­isons across state lines will be hard to make: Just 22 states will give one of the two main Com­mon Core tests next year, leav­ing 28 that will go their own way.

Com­mon Core sup­port­ers say the coun­try is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion over­all: De­spite the at­tri­tion, more chil­dren are tak­ing com­mon tests than ever be­fore.

“We’re get­ting more hon­est,” Nus­sle said. “We have more trans­parency than we’ve ever had.”

But is there still a con­cern that states are find­ing ways to hide the truth about their stu­dents’ per­for­mance on tests?

“I think we’re al­ways go­ing to be bat­tling that,” Nus­sle said. “It takes po­lit­i­cal courage, and there’s not a lot of that these days.”

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