PARCC released some additional ELA sample items this week for grades 7, 8 and 10. These items continue to signal a dramatic departure from most of the items we see on most, if not all, state assessments. The items require students to read challenging, authentic texts (Paulsen's Brian's Winter and London's Call of the Wild are used as sources for the 8th grade performance-based items); deeply read and seek out evidence to support comprehension and vocabulary; and, most importantly, respond thoughtfully to extended prompts that connect back to the reading passages. There is a lot to like here, particularly when we compare these kinds of items to ISTEP+'s sample prompts, such as this one that asks students to read a short passage (the last two lines read "Though it is not listed in any recipe, love and care are what makes the baker’s products so sweet. A cinnamon roll made with love will always taste better than one made without!") and respond to the question, "Do you think you would like to have a job as a baker?"
Students' results on the Common Core-aligned tests out of New York and Kentucky suggest that these tests are significantly more rigorous than ISTEP+ and other state tests that were adopted in response to No Child Left Behind. A 2012 RAND study found that on 17 U.S. state tests, only 21% of the items required students to apply higher-ordered thinking skills (think level 3 and higher on Bloom's Taxonomy). Since the enactment of NCLB many states have been playing games with their proficiency cut scores, misleading folks to believe that the slow rise in student pass rates has been more a function of student achievement gains than the unpublicized changes to performance standards. As Grant Wiggins notes, "Alas, what many critics of Common Core forget is that it has been politically untenable for states to fail or warn a third to a half of their students – yet, this is in fact the reality of where students stand in terms of genuine readiness."
While we have not seen a full test yet from PARCC or Smarter Balanced and while there are some school preparedness issues to work out, it seems apparent to me that these new assessments are a huge step forward. They have the potential to encourage better assessment practices, challenge students to connect what they write to what they read, and reshape the way teachers use texts in their curriculum and instructional planning. After seeing the rigor inherent in these upcoming tests, it's hard to conceive of a return to the status quo.
So would those in the state who are so quick to criticize the Common Core help me to understand how we handle the question of the state test? What alternatives exist if we decide not to go with one of the two consortia assessments? While the Indiana standards framework adopted in 2010 would be fine to readopt, taking this route would force us to either stick with ISTEP+ or design a new, more rigorous standards-aligned assessment. The former seems hard to imagine in light of the feds' stipulation that all states adopt an assessment framework commensurate with the rigor evidenced in the consortia assessments. ISTEP+ simply wouldn't measure up. The latter seems to hard to fathom in the light of the costs inherent in designing a new state assessment.
So where does that leave us?