Common Core backlash casts shadow on future testing in NC

lbonner@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2014 

  • Sample Common Core test questions

    The following are two sample questions from the SMARTER Balanced tests that North Carolina is considering adopting.

    Grade 4 math

    Five friends ordered 3 large sandwiches.

    James ate 3/4 of a sandwich.

    Katya ate 1/4 of a sandwich.

    Ramon ate 3/4 of a sandwich.

    Sienna ate 2/4 of a sandwich.

    How much sandwich is left for Oscar?

    Grade 4 writing

    The following is the beginning of a story that a student is writing for a class assignment. The story needs more details and an ending. Read the beginning of the story and then complete the task that follows.

    Oliver's Big Splash

    Oliver was a dog that lived in a small town near a lake. He loved to play outside. Oliver liked to play fetch, but his favorite thing to do was to chase leaves. He loved chasing leaves so much that his favorite time of year was fall when the leaves fell off the trees.

    One beautiful fall day, Oliver and his owner, Jeff, went for a walk around the lake. They were enjoying the sunshine and the lake when suddenly a dragonfly flew past. For a moment, Oliver forgot where he and Jeff were and what they were doing. All of the sudden there was a big splash.

    Write an ending for the story by adding details to tell what happens next.

    Source: smarterbalanced.org

The State Board of Education must decide whether it will replace state-written standardized tests with national exams, a decision freighted with financial and political implications.

North Carolina has been part of a group of states guiding the creation of a national test called SMARTER Balanced, which is tied to Common Core standards for reading and math. The thought was that students statewide would begin taking the national exams next year.

The Common Core State Standards establish a clear and consistent map for what students should learn from kindergarten through high school to prepare them better for college and careers. North Carolina is one of 45 states to adopt the standards.

But a Common Core backlash, driven by critics who question the state’s decision to hand over control of its education standards to national groups, has complicated the decision on whether to adopt the national tests.

The legislature in its budget prohibited the Board of Education from spending any money on new tests linked to the standards, including SMARTER Balanced, unless the legislature passes a law allowing it.

A legislative committee examining Common Core wants to consider the fiscal and legal consequences of the state dropping out of the group working on the test.

The state board was scheduled to vote this week on what tests to use next year, but Chairman Bill Cobey said Thursday that the board wasn’t ready to do so. Instead, the board is going to get more information on options and what other states are doing.

“It's a very complicated thing because it has budgetary implications,” he said. Ultimately, the legislature controls what that board will do, Cobey said.

The 14-member board, which includes the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer and 11 members appointed by the governor, has discussed a March deadline for making a preliminary decision. But that timetable is out of sync with any possible legislative action. The legislature doesn’t return to work until May 14. Even if legislators decided to allow the state board to buy national tests, there’s no way they could pass a law allowing it by March.

“At some point, we’re going to have to confront that question,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and a member of the Common Core legislative committee.

Tillman, a Common Core critic, wants details on testing costs, including costs for teacher training.

Comparing student performance

Part of the rationale for having national tests linked to common standards was to allow state-to-state comparisons of student performance.

But questions about Common Core have cast a shadow over the tests too. Florida, which was a lead state developing one of the Common Core-linked tests, dropped out of the group last September.

The SMARTER Balanced tests the state has helped develop are different from the traditional state-written standardized exams the national tests would replace. Videos and calculators are embedded in the computerized tests, and the online exams would change for each student based on answers to test questions.

For example, a right answer on one item would bring up a more challenging question, while a wrong answer would lead to an easier question.

If the state stays in the test-development group, it will help set the pass/fail scores for the national tests. The State Board of Education would no longer set passing scores.

The board has a few options for testing. It could decide to keep its state-written standardized tests. That would be the cheapest option at $11.23 per student, according to price comparisons prepared by the state Department of Public Instruction.

Comparing costs

The SMARTER Balanced test costs $22.50 per student.

The Board of Education will hear about testing options that include ACT Aspire, which is also aligned to the new math and English standards.

ACT Aspire costs $23 per student for the online version and $29 per student for the paper test. An alternative to SMARTER Balanced that some states are working on, called PARCC, would cost $29.50 per student.

“North Carolina wants to know how well we’re doing as compared to other states,” Cobey said. “That would mean we need some kind of nationally normed tests.”

Tillman said “he’s not totally sold” on Common Core and isn’t convinced the national standards are better than those the state could develop on its own. “Why would we give up our independence?” he asked.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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