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Education Montana Politics

Its Testing Regime Could Well Doom the Common Core

Let me begin with the important observation that I think the Common Core State Standards represent a significant upgrade over the standards that were in place in Montana before. As a teacher in his fifteenth year of teaching English in Montana’s public schools, I see the Common Core Standards for the Language Arts as a real opportunity to improve English instruction and demand more from our students just as the economy of the future will demand more. When I first encountered the new standards, I was impressed with the rigor expected of students, and noticed that the expectations for 11th and 12th grade students were similar to the expectations formerly reserved for AP students.

On balance, the standards offer teachers the clarity to teach better-aligned, more rigorous instruction for students, but I’m very concerned that the testing regime that has been put in place could scuttle the movement for these improved standards and give ammunition to the groups who are arguing against Common Core.

The consortia running the assessments related to the Common Core simply need to do a better job building confidence among teachers and the public that they’re capable of doing the job. The vendor responsible for Montana’s testing, an outfit called Measured Progress (who is administering Montana’s version of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test, has failed get their testing platform ready for Montana schools, threatening the credibility of the entire process and seriously inconveniencing schools and their students. Yesterday, Measured Progress informed OPI one day before the beginning of testing that they need an “indefinite” delay before having their testing platform ready, after already delaying the testing window for a week to resolve this issue.

The Billings Gazette reports that this setback affected at least 37 school districts across the state who planned to begin testing today—along with students from Nevada and North Dakota. And it’s not insignificant to realign schedules because of these delays. As the Gazette noted in its story yesterday about the testing, the logistical and technical demands of the testing are quite taxing on districts and disrupt educational planning and delivery. Just ask the good people in Park City, who had to moving the testing to another community facility just to accommodate the space needed.

Unfortunately, this delay is not something new. Last year during the field test, the SBAC also had to delay the testing by a week, only notifying states at the last minute about the need to change the date of the test.

Another huge flaw with the testing regime is that Smarter Balanced failed to deliver promised interim assessments that were supposed to help students and teachers prepare for the tests, as EdSource notes:

The interim assessments were supposed to give students a way to rehearse for the Smarter Balanced assessments and allow teachers to see how well students had mastered the math and English Language Arts curriculum tied to the Common Core. That’s not how it has worked out, however. The interim assessments were supposed to be in the hands of educators last fall. But the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium didn’t complete them until the end of January, too late for most teachers or districts to use them extensively, according to interviews conducted by EdSource.

My guess is that most teachers are not far from where I am: supportive of the Common Core, and deeply skeptical about the tests associated with it. After years of seeing testing being used as a club to demonize public education, teachers are understandably wary about a new set of tests, especially one that seems shrouded in some degree of mystery and a great degree of uncertainty. The repeated mistakes are hardly the approach to build support for the testing among teachers, who are a critical—and skeptical—constituency who must be won over to ensure public support for the tests.

The movement against the Common Core is mobilized and loud—and delays and mistakes like this will only empower these groups. It’s time for the testing consortia and other organizations to get their act together. After $370 million in funding to develop the test, not to mention millions more to prepare schools to deliver them, it isn’t too much to ask for the organizations producing the test to deliver.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • My education in developing tests came in a class in applied psychology back in the slide rule and blue book era, so I’m possibly a bit rusty on the subject. The SBAC seems like an ambitious project that can’t be perfected in a year or two, and that it’s a mistake for anyone to believe that it can. It could take five years to a decade to smooth out the rough spots.

    Still, I like the idea of a single national test that allows schools in Montana to be compared with schools in Georgia. So frustrating as the launch of the SBAC is, I hope educators, parents, voters, and politicians will stick with the program and work out its kinks instead of throwing up their hands and saying “We don’t need no stinkin’ standardized tests.”

    • Common Core has been in the schools for over four years now, and SBAC has had all that time to develop the testing regimes. It seems at this point that it may be time to look for another entity to develop the testing regime since the group trying to do it appears to be singularly incapable (or may at worst be working to sabotage the Common Core program altogether!) of developing a testing regime that works with this program.

      Surely there are other organizations out there who could work with this curriculum to develop this testing regime without the spectacular failures and with a smoother rollout that doesn’t harm the children who have already been in the Common Core programs for 4-5 years already?

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