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Concerns about testing accompany Common Core standards

In New York starting this school year, classrooms will transform into havens of critical thinking and deeper learning — the opposite of the teach-to-the-test culture so reviled by many teachers for more than a decade. Or so promise proponents of the new set of standards known as the Common Core that the state’s schools are adopting in full for the first time this fall.

But some educators are worried the drill-and-kill culture will survive the shift to tougher standards as New York pushes forward with its plans to tie teachers evaluations to their students’ test scores. That shift started last year across the state and continues in New York City this year.

“If I’m a new untenured teacher, I could be very focused on trying to make sure those kids do well on the test,” said David Getz, principal of East Side Middle School, one of the highest-performing middle schools in New York City.

In the spring, New York became the second state in the country, after Kentucky, to test its students on Common Core, using an exam created by Pearson, the textbook and testing company. As was expected, test scores plummeted.

This spring, about 600 schools across the state will pilot parts of a new end-of-year exam developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a group of states working together to develop new computer-based assessments aligned to the new standards that they hope will test deeper understanding of concepts.

Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, those tests could replace the Pearson exams statewide, according to the New York State Department of Education. State officials have long said they intend to adopt the new tests, although State Education Commissioner John King said recently that cost and capacity concerns could slow down the state’s timeline.

The results from the tests would be included in teacher evaluations for all third- to eighth-grade math and English teachers. (Separate Common Core-aligned Regents exams required for high school graduation in New York will be rolled out between 2015 and 2016.)

PARCC test-makers say the online format allows them to go beyond the constraints of traditional multiple-choice bubble tests. The PARCC exams are still being developed and Chad Colby, the group’s spokesperson, said he couldn’t say whether they would be more difficult than New York’s 2013 tests. But he said the tests would be designed so it’s impossible to teach to them. “You have to actually learn a skill,” he said. “You actually have to read a passage and pull out evidence.”

In the sample questions released by PARCC, students are being asked to write short answers to some questions, such as writing a topic sentence for a paragraph or explaining their answer to a math problem. One sample task for fourth grade asks students to write an essay comparing characters from two readings, prompting students to “Explain how the thoughts, words and/or actions of the character help you understand what the character is like.” Students will be scored between zero and four on such questions based on the clarity and grammar of their answer, as well as on how accurately and well they refer to the text.

Another sample item requires students to create a summary of a story by choosing three sentences from a list of eight and dragging them into a box. “It allows students to show their whole range of knowledge in the way that a multiple-choice test can’t,” Colby said.

But practice tests and examples published so far suggest that parts of the new tests won’t deviate far from the traditional format.

PARCC’s sample literary analysis task for fourth grade, for example, asks multiple-choice questions such as, “Which statement best expresses the themes of the story?”

Frank Adamson, a policy analyst at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, an education research and policy development center, said the move to tests with performance tasks was promising, but not enough to realize the ultimate goals of the Common Core. “They’re basically standardized tests with some open-ended questions, so they do allow students to apply the skills that they have, but in a bounded environment,” he said.

Getz, who was one of 50 principals who signed a letter to New York Education Commission John King citing concerns about the quality of the spring 2013 assessments, hopes policymakers will acknowledge that standardized test scores are imperfect measures of what students are supposed to learn under the new standards. Common Core has standards of speaking skills for each grade, for instance, which can’t be measured with multiple choice questions or essays.

“Not that [students] shouldn’t be able to do well on the test, but it’s incomplete,” Getz said.

PARCC will offer two end-of-year tests, plus an optional diagnostic test for the beginning of the year and an optional midterm exam to help teachers measure student progress throughout the year. Critics worry the extra tests will exacerbate test prep, as teachers will take extra care to cover the items they know will be tested. Derek Neal, an economist at the University of Chicago, who has studied standardized testing, has predicted that soon, “kids are going to be sitting around at computer terminals practicing their test-taking skills.”

Computerized assessments will also be a financial burden for many of New York’s school districts, particularly rural ones with limited Internet connectivity. PARCC is considering offering a pencil-and-paper test in 2014-2015 to states that aren’t prepared for online testing, but ultimately districts will be expected to be able to test on computers.

Most New York City schools will get funding from an $87 million settlement with Microsoft to adopt the required technology, but the switch is seen as an unfunded mandate by the School Administrators Association of New York State. “Computer-based assessment is smart, it’s strategic, but it’s not free,” said James Voila, director of government relations for the association. “I don’t know where many of the school districts are going to be getting that money.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read more from Hechinger on the Common Core.

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