Improving the odds of success: Ohio should embrace a Common Core assessment consortium now

Getting academic standards right ??? specifying the knowledge and skills that teachers should teach and students should learn ??? is at the heart of just about everything that matters in K-12 education. Standards wield significant influence over what happens inside classrooms and high-quality academic standards that are the same across state lines offer the best shot at ensuring quality education for all American students, whether they live in Massachusetts, Oregon, or Ohio.

Ohio committed itself to embracing higher standards that cross state lines when it joined 45 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting the Common Core standards in math and English language arts (ELA) in June 2010. These standards, crafted by experts and practitioners convened by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, are more rigorous than Ohio's current ones. In Fordham's 2010 analysis of state academic standards, outside expert reviewers found that Ohio's ELA and math standards both earned an undistinguished C, while the Common Core standards in ELA and math are rated B+ and A ??? respectively.

The Common Core standards as promulgated appear deeper, more specific, and more cogent than most state academic standards, including Ohio's. They are well grounded in what students will need in order to be successful in college and in a career. In the language of current reform efforts, the K-12 common core standards will better ensure that students are college and career ready.

But, adopting rigorous academic standards is just the first step in a long journey. High academic standards do not automatically translate into stronger student performance. These higher standards must be accompanied by adequate, ongoing training for current and future teachers, principals, and district leaders to understand the new standards; new, aligned curriculum at the local level; aligned and well-designed assessments; and rigorous accountability systems.

At the local level, educators should begin learning and integrating the new standards into their classrooms.?? As a state, Ohio is at an implementation crossroads where it must decide how best to align its assessments with the new standards.??

Ohio could ultimately develop its own assessments, though that is costly, challenging, and time consuming.?? And even if Ohio were able to muster the money and capacity to develop its own rigorous, content-aligned assessments, it would not be able to compare Ohio students and schools with those in other states and the nation as a whole. Further, Ohio would have to go it alone in terms of developing curricula, professional development tools, and computer systems.????

Alternately, Ohio can join one of the two voluntary consortia of states working, with nearly $200 million of Race to the Top funding apiece, to develop Common Core assessments: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). (Ohio is presently a member of both but a decision-maker in neither.)??

The decision between the consortia isn't an easy one, but it should be made soon.?? Choosing a consortium sooner rather than later gives the Buckeye State the opportunity to influence the assessment development, but it does not bind the state to ultimately using it.

To help state education leaders better understand and compare SBAC and PARCC, Fordham staff Kathleen Porter-Magee, Jamie Davies O'Leary, and Emmy Partin have crafted a nifty primer about both. The Common Core and the Future of Student Assessment offers a side-by-side comparison of key components of each consortia, including what tests will be required and which will be optional, what resources will be available to support teachers, how much the new assessments will cost, and the timeline for rolling them out.

Fordham is partial to PARCC and would advise Ohio to commit to it as a governing state; thus joining such seriously reform-minded states like Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee. Whichever consortia Ohio decides to join, however, fast action in the decision-making is warranted. If Ohio commits to a consortium now, and the chatter in Columbus is that the state board may make a decision as soon as September, it will give the state an important head start in the enormous amount of work involved with rolling out new academic standards and everything associated with them.

Many states are already modifying their existing systems (and curriculum, professional development, and statewide accountability systems) to be aligned with the Common Core, and in anticipation of the new assessment systems being developed. Ohio would be wise to make the commitment to do the same, especially as selecting a consortium isn't binding and the state can opt out at any time. The real danger is in waiting; transitioning to new standards and assessments is a serious undertaking for the state, its schools, and its educators and the more time they have for the transition the better. By making the decision sooner rather than later the Buckeye State will improve the odds of success for both its educators and its students.

-Terry Ryan

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