Getting beyond the buzz in the Beehive State

Children Lose Out” was the title of an editorial penned by The Salt Lake Tribune in response to last week’s State Board of Education decision to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Nationally, Common Core (CCSS) advocates worry that this move will not only hurt Utah’s kids, but also that it represents a weakening of support for the new expectations, and they worry that it could fuel even more anti-CCSS fire across the country.

Perhaps.

On the other hand, if Utah education leaders seize this moment as an opportunity to prove both that the CCSS is truly a state-lead initiative and to show how a state can take the reins to ensure that the aligned assessments are clear and rigorous and to give teachers the implementation tools they need, this move could do more to garner support for CCSS implementation than either consortium has done to date.

The reality is that, more than two years after the release of the final version of the CCSS, SBAC and the other assessment consortium, PARCC, have released scant information about what their assessments will look like—and how (if at all) they’ll differ from the mediocre tests we have now. Nor have they given teachers the information they need to guide lesson planning and instruction. Given the pressure that states are feeling to develop implementation plans, and that teachers are feeling to quickly align their practice to the new expectations, this lack of information is troubling. Assessments are, after all, where the rubber meets the road, and if they remain focused on lower-level, more easily assessable skills, instruction will likely change very little. But, if they change as much as the hype suggests they will, teachers will need more information than they have been given to align their practice to the new expectations.

The CCSS hold much promise, but only if the assessments tied to them are clearer, better measures of student learning than anything we’ve seen from traditional assessment vendors to date.

Of course, the fact that much of the drive to push the state out of SBAC came from anti-Common Core forces like the Eagle Forum should have Common Core supporters across the country on guard. But this is a small battle in the larger war. And, if SBAC or PARCC deliver on their promises, Utah will still have the chance to rejoin a consortium and implement one of the common assessments.

In the meantime, though, education leaders in the Beehive State have the opportunity to prove that this decision was more about getting implementation right than it was about politics. To do that, though, they will need to ante up and fund the development of rigorous, CCSS-aligned assessments and the related materials that teachers will need to help align their lessons and instruction to the standards and assessments. And they will need to move more quickly than either consortium has been able to do to date.

The CCSS hold much promise, but only if the assessments tied to them are clearer, better measures of student learning than anything we’ve seen from traditional assessment vendors to date. Let’s hope that Utah leaders are serious about getting this right and that they are working to put kids first.

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