NEBHE Bites Into the Core

The federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002 left it to states to establish their own academic standards and assessment systems. Those standards vary across the country in rigor and quality. Yet as former Maine Commissioner of Education Susan A. Gendron noted in March 2010: “What is different about mathematics in Maine from California? … I don’t believe there is a difference.”

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2009 enlisted experts to draft common standards to encourage all students, regardless of background, to be ready for college or career after high school. The common core standards have been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia. (Alaska, Texas and Virginia have signaled they would not take part.)

On Thursday, Sept. 22, and Friday, Sept. 23, NEBHE convened about 70 education administrators and state legislators in Newport, R.I., to discuss “Common Core Standards & Assessing College Readiness.”

One thing is certain at this point: The common core standards will have a major impact on curricula, textbooks, testing, and teaching and learning.

Longitudinal data systems

The first session began with “Best-in-Class School to College and Workforce Longitudinal Data Systems: A New Model for States and the Region,” featuring Karen Levesque, director of K-12 School Improvement and Robert Fitzgerald, senior research associate both at MPR Associates Inc., and Douglas Shapiro of the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).

Levesque noted that the NSC has data on 93% of college students in the country, whether they went to public or private institutions. The data are owned by the institutions, but MPR is able to share basic “directory” information, while states can provide detailed information on coursetaking. State longitudinal systems in the three pilot sites—Florida, Georgia and Texas—were really warehouses holding data that have never before been linked. Fitzgerald explained that the analysts began to use “algorithmic magic” outside zealously guarded Social Security numbers in order to match students and to tell a fuller story.

Levesque explained the “Create Reports” function in the MPR Advance data platform, using as an example, a look at how Citrus County, Florida, compared with Florida as a whole. She noted that 60% of students, in this example, are enrolled in Florida’s vibrant two-year public colleges. She said a high percentage of students who score proficient on high school assessment need remediation in college math—a gap that is less significant in English.

Not surprisingly, student persistence was lowest among students who were economically disadvantaged. Levesque said MPR is talking to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about how to scale up from the current three pilot sites to 10 or so.

Shapiro spoke of linking education data to workforce data—an endeavor in which community colleges have been pioneers. He said NSC has faced obstacles getting wage data based on Social Security numbers in part to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but states can get more data. Additionally, using Social Security numbers at all creates a big bias because you get only students who went to college.

State readiness

“What is the state capacity in higher ed?,” asked Aims McGuinness Jr., senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), as he began a session on “State Readiness for Common Core Standards and College Ready Assessment Implementation: Recent Research Findings.”

The key ingredients to state success in implementing common core assessments, McGuinness said, include having a solid partner to work with chief state school officers on the common core across a broad spectrum and a record of leading academic change in areas such as remediation, relationship with K-12 and adult education

He noted that Texas has implemented “the most outlandish intrusion on higher ed” with its seven principles of what higher ed ought to do.  “Texas has rejected the common core,” McGuinness said, “but has done an amazing job on assessments.”

McGuinness said the researchers constantly heard that the new assessment was interfering with what already exists in states. New England states have, in fact, been deep into assessment and they’ve been trying to correlate (their assessments) with the common core. (As one panelist told me, states work hard to improve assessment and then when they finally get it, the core standards change.)

McGuinness added: The track record on P-20 is limited. Just forming structures is one of the weakest indicators. There’s no way New England is going to form structures across states the way Kentucky has within one state. There also needs to be more recognition of student mobility across states in New England.

How we got here and the road ahead

On Thursday evening, attendees heard Dane Linn and Travis Reindl of the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices explore “Common Core Standards: How We Got Here and the Road Ahead.”

Linn walked the audience through myths and facts about the common core. He said it is very important that higher education be at the table and be aware of the challenges because we’ve never tried anything like this on a national level. New England, he said, has an opportunity to do more than just talk about collaboration. He added that it is a myth that many new governors are questioning the common core—not one has rescinded what a predecessor did in terms of the common core.

Debate about content vs. skills is also false, Linn said. The common core should be about both. And it doesn’t mean a national curriculum. It does entail defining what students should know and be able to do based on standards benchmarked against countries including Singapore, Australia and Finland that perform very well on PISA and TIMMS, but also against leading states such as Massachusetts.

Reindl said adoption of the common core will not eliminate the need for remediation in postsecondary education. “Be ready for the remedial spike,” he said. “It may or may not happen but that’s a prime place where wheels will come off the wagon … what would we do if it went up 10%?”

Duke Albanese, senior policy advisor with the Great Schools Partnership, led a panel of respondents, saying this great opportunity is going to happen … the country is behind it.

Michael Meotti, executive vice president of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, said when a smaller effort was tried 20 years ago the problem arose in actually bringing the standards to classrooms and campuses. Chancellor Edward MacKay of the University System of New Hampshire warned that New England is no longer a talent magnet and that the compact that there’s a public good to higher education is becoming unraveled. Wanda Monthey, the Maine Department of Education’s team leader for PK-20/Adult Ed and Federal Programs, lamented that teachers need support to integrate their teaching practices with the new common core standards.

During a somewhat heated exchange, Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Tim Donovan asked if labor was at the table? Linn said the best feedback in the process came from the American Federation of Teachers. Donovan said he’d never heard that assertion in all the common core discussions he’d witnessed.  He also said that colleges should be judging applicants based upon competencies rather than grades. Donovan then added that so many students are now homeschooled, New England could make a statement that no student who comes with such a nontraditional record will be disadvantaged. Mackay said that would be a challenge because we can only compare applicants with others from their schools. David Ruff of the Great Schools Partnership countered that we know the grades teachers give are based on almost anything and that a competency-based system will give colleges a better assessment of the capabilities of college applicants.

Harry Osgood of the Maine Department of Education asked if now was the time for a common high school transcript.

View from the statehouses

Pam Goins, director of Education Policy at the Council of State Governments, ran through the various approaches states are taking.

In response, Connecticut Rep. Roberta Willis, noted that Connecticut has the widest achievement gap in the U.S., because it has the richest and poorest communities. Right now, colleges pay for some of the burden of closing the gap; but with common core, we’ll be pushing it on to schools, she said, reminding the audience that New England already has an incredibly strong tradition of local control.

We have wonderful testing already in Connecticut, said Willis, one of the best in the U.S., but we don’t really use it … it’s aggregate information, doesn’t focus on specific students. Taxpayers just see the data and think we’re spending too much on education. Also, how does special education fit into this? What happens with students who can’t meet the new standards?

Rhode Island Rep. Joseph McNamara said there is a misconception that teachers today are not focused on reform. An English teacher in McNamara’s district said common core is not that different from “grade level expectation” we already use and post in classrooms. It seems as if every two years we have major reform … only wish we had time to see if how the latest reform affects performance.

McNamara added that the rollout of the federal Race to the Top competition left a bad taste for some Rhode Islanders. First of all, to compete, states were asked to adopt the standards though they hadn’t been developed yet. And the first Rhode Island meeting was in Massachusetts—an affront to New England individualism especially in a time of sky-high unemployment for the Ocean State. Meanwhile millions of dollars are leaving Rhode Island to pay consultants in Texas to develop the curricula. McNamara also wondered: Will textbook publishers overly influence the choice of materials? Will increased rigor develop need for increased programs that states can’t pay for at this time?”

Goins countered that states did have a chance to see and comment on the standards before the deadline for Race to the Top grants, but the review window was small.

New Hampshire Rep. Randy Foose said the problem is the process is being implemented at a point where there’s an interest in further reducing state budgets. New Hampshire Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a former NEBHE chair, noted that in his district of Manchester, the largest in New Hampshire, the school board chair is the mayor. We’re all laboring with budget problems. But what he wants to do is save money, cut taxes … but you’re proposing things that would cost us money.”

Aside from money, there’s very little critical analysis about the move to common core state standards. But one might wonder if the core is a bit too common and how an un-common core emphasizing softer but no less necessary areas like emotional intelligence and character development might also fit in.

Moreover, Donald E. Williams Jr., president pro tempore of the Connecticut Senate, pointed out that states must keep their eyes on other priorities, including issues affecting school performance such as neonatal care and universal pre-K, rather than simply focusing on the flavor of the month. McNamara agreed, emphasizing that school breakfast is not some communist plot; it’s modest proven ways to help the kids we’re investing in.

New opportunities to assess college readiness

NEBHE then heard from the two assessment consortia boiled down from an original eight, ultimately chosen to work in the six New England states.

Jeff Nellhaus, director of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), whose managing partner is Achieve Inc. was chosen for Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

There was healthy skepticism in Massachusetts about whether the common core would lower our standards. Nellhaus explained that the Bay State decided to move to the common core to get good information on a full range of students—even in difficult-to-assess areas such as speaking and writing—and to show student growth over time Tools will be developed to help teachers assess students during the school year. It will all be computerized and include a summative assessment.

Tony Alpert, chief operating officer of SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, whose managing partner is WestEd in San Francisco, was chosen for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut.

Alpert noted that Oregon is bringing everyone to the table and making consistent interventions and supports, for example, for students with disabilities. The system will include a summative assessment, but also performance tasks and accountability tools so students can manage their own learning better. Also formative assessment that looks more like instruction than a test and is labeled as a “digital library.” Adaptive tests add value beyond assessment, for example matching students’ needs, even with Braille.

Donovan asked if the assessment results become part of student records? Alpert said yes it will be delivered to a state, but not across states.

Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross asked about the cut scores, or passing scores. “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Nellhaus. “That cut score will be determined by cumulative assessments,” he said. In other words, according to PARCC’s design, each level of performance in the formative assessments will be added to an end-of-the-year summative assessment with cut scores attributed to the cumulative formative results.

Gross asked how the assessment would interact with the ACT, SAT and other tests. Nellhaus said the consortia are not looking to replace admissions tests, but rather to help with placement. The consortia planned to meet with State Higher Education Executive Offices (SHEEO) to identify what standards should be emphasized on assessments to be unveiled in three years

McNamara noted that math tests online without a pencil and paper can be difficult at least for my generation. Alpert said the advocacy the two consortia are able to engage in is tremendous; collaborating on a readiness survey to learn what type of computers and bandwidth is available. Nellhaus added that the vision is not marching students into a computer lab, but rather using tools students will use everyday.

Creating strategies and regional working groups

NEBHE then convened New England SHEEOs and Chief State School Officers to discuss creating strategies and regional working groups to consider:

•    Longitudinal data system development and regional data sharing
•    Aligning Common Core to gateway English and math courses
•    Teacher education and developing a New England reciprocity agreement
•    College completion study with the National Student Clearinghouse

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Virginia Barry noted that rapid turnaround will come from our teacher-preparation; we don’t heave teacher portability in New England, she said, and that’s a huge workforce issue

Barry also gave a nod to “move on when ready”—the concept of allowing qualified 11th and 12th graders to leave high school and enter college. This idea emerged a few years ago in the Tough Choices Tough Times report released by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

Aundrea Kelley, the Massachusetts deputy commissioner for P-16 Policy and Collaborative called for a new approach to remedial education that is competency-based, allows students to master only content they are deficient in, rather than taking a three-credit developmental course. Jim Breece, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, at the University of Maine System commented that we should take a page from the private colleges who imbed remediation into existing gateway coursework.

Most of those gathered in Newport agreed: This may be the closest the states will ever come to making common cause on education standards.


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