New tests raise the bar for kids, and that's a good thing, whatever the scores

Opinion by Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers in the Hechinger Report

05/19/15

 Last August I visited my family in Oregon right before my niece headed back to school to begin the fifth grade.

I knew this school year would be different for her. She would face more challenges in the classroom. She’d be expected to add, subtract and multiply decimals, to read more complex texts and to compare and contrast stories in the same genre –- all important skills critical to her future success.

She has always done well in school, but at the end of the school year, would her parents actually know whether or not she mastered key skills? Will they get the information they need to ensure she is on track for the sixth grade, and to eventually graduate high school ready for college and career?

In prior years, I would doubt any parent received the information they needed to know whether their child mastered the skills needed to succeed in the next grade.  But this year will be different. We have turned a critical corner. My niece – and most students across the country in kindergarten through 11th grade – is taking brand new tests designed to measure and report what a student knows and is able to do.

Related: Stakes for “high stakes” tests are actually pretty low

Whether PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or another test, teachers in states across the nation have helped design better tests that not only evaluate a student’s progress, but show teachers and parents exactly where a student needs help so they are able to personalize instruction to meet individual student needs.

These new assessments have the power to revolutionize the quality of education in the United States. Since 2002, students have been taking statewide tests that were almost exclusively comprised of multiple-choice questions. These assessments were extremely limited in what they could measure. Today states recognize that in order to better serve all children — and their families — it is time to improve these measurement tools.

Teachers have told us that the tests we used in the past – the ones where students simply choose a, b, c or d – were not the most accurate measure of what kids need to know because they can only measure basic-level skills. They don’t foster critical thinking, or problem solving. In addition, parents have told us that the feedback they receive from these tests at the end of the school year is minimal and not easy to understand.

Related: Who was behind the Common Core math standards, and will they survive?

In short we had no way to ensure that every single student was on track to succeed at the next grade level, and eventually in college and a career.

State leaders listened.

As a result they have been working closely with teachers for the past several years to build new, high-quality assessments that go beyond multiple choice questions to ask students to solve mathematics problems and explain their answers, to read a passage and think critically about what it said. This also allows students to explain their work and show their thinking rather than simply guess at answers.

Over the past few weeks, students around the country have begun taking these tests. The transition to high quality assessments is an enormous milestone, and a critical investment in our nation’s future, but like any major change, it won’t be easy.

I consider this ‘the transition year” – the year to get used to this new way of assessing; the year to see the real tangible information that parents receive; the year for teachers to begin to personalize instruction to best meet their students’ needs.

Related: Do the arts go hand in hand with common core?

These new tests are more challenging. While the test itself is more dynamic and engaging, the content is more difficult because it measures against college- and career-ready expectations at each grade level. Because of this, scores will likely be different in your state this first year. This is to be expected. As with any change, we know there is a period of adjustment as teachers and students get used to the new standards and the new tests. It doesn’t mean students are learning less. It means we have raised the bar for students, and that’s a good thing.

I am excited about the test my niece will take this year. Of course as a fifth grader she hasn’t made any decisions about which college to attend or what she wants career she wants to pursue. But her parents can now take comfort in knowing that by the time she graduates high school, she’ll have the skills she needs to follow her dreams, and they will have all the information they need to get her there.

Chris Minnich is executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which he joined in 2008 to direct the program that would later become the Common Core State Standards

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