Common Core blues
By Joe Robertson
By Joe Robertson
The Kansas City Star
(MCT) — Welcome to one of Common Core's problematic intersections.
Here, a national drive to hold teachers and schools more accountable for test scores is bearing down on the sometimes messy science of creating new tests.
Kansas and Missouri — aware of collisions and debris elsewhere in the nation — are applying some brakes.
Scores from this year's Kansas state assessments and, most likely, next year's Missouri assessments won't count against teachers or schools.
What does it mean?
It gives schools more time to sort out fair ways to blend results from what are likely to be harder tests into teacher performance evaluations.
It will put a higher premium on Kansas City Public Schools' bid to gain provisional accreditation this fall, before Missouri puts its new tests into play on a trial basis next spring.
And it may buy the provisionally accredited St. Louis Public Schools an extra year to improve on some of the district's woeful unaccredited-level test scores as the state begins making new designations in 2015.
Making sure the new tests are reliable is the prudent way to go, said Brad Neuenswander, Kansas' interim education commissioner.
"We will have a great assessment," Neuenswander said, but until Kansas' new test is affirmed, "we will not make a claim we do not know is valid."
As two of the 45 states that signed on to join in the Common Core State Standards, Kansas and Missouri each created new sets of grade-level learning targets. School districts in both states have spent three to four years developing their curriculums and strategies to teach children to those new standards.
To measure how well schools are doing, states need new tests to assess whether students are learning to the standards.
Kansas' first year of a full-state trial run with its new computerized assessments was compromised when massive attacks by foreign hackers shut down the system for several days.
Officials say Kansas should have plenty of good tests for schools and teachers to weigh how students are performing, but there is too much uncertainty to issue individual scores to students, evaluate teachers or publish school scores this year.
Missouri, which will run its full-state trial of its new assessments next spring, could be headed to a different kind of uncertainty.
The Missouri legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would direct appointed teams of educators to revisit the Common Core standards. The bill still awaits Gov. Jay Nixon's signature to become law.
Their work, which would go to the State Board of Education, might produce standards that resemble Common Core — or not. If the standards significantly change, the tests would have to follow suit.
Missouri is folding the new assessments into its new accountability system, which is finishing its second year.
Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro has said she wouldn't recommend any changes in accreditation status until three years of data were available, or 2015. But the tests make up the most significant portion of the state's accreditation measure, and the legislative action also mandates that the new test results in 2015 can't be used negatively against any school districts.
The new tests in Missouri cover the third through eighth grades. The end-of-course exams in high school are not part of the change, so the state could use some test data for negative accreditation changes in 2015.
Whether that means school districts at risk of losing accreditation, such as St. Louis, will get more time, is hard to say.
"The department will not use (the new test results) to lower a district's accreditation," the state said in a written response. However, data can be used to recognize student growth if it helps the district.
Missouri's scoring system "is comprised of multiple measures and — therefore — accreditation determinations will not be delayed," the statement said.
Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said he thinks the last year of old test data, from May, will help his district score high enough to seek reaccreditation, or at least provisional accreditation. Those results will come out in August.
Kansas City does not want to be left gambling on what comes from the new assessment in 2015.
A lot of states are in testing limbo. It is why Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who supports the Common Core standards, on June 10 called for a two-year moratorium on placing high stakes on new exams.
"It's really a challenge," said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president and managing director of state policy for the National Council on Teacher Quality, which supports making student performance a preponderant factor in teacher evaluations.
"But we want to keep the system moving," she said.
Many states, including Missouri and Kansas, are required to advance performance-based evaluation systems as part of the school improvement plans they submitted to the U.S. Department of Education to gain waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.
Missouri and Kansas created their evaluation tools with input from teacher groups, which mostly were satisfied with the way the tools allow districts to draw on multiple measures to judge teacher performance in addition to state test scores.
But the testing uncertainties and the likelihood of lower scores once new assessments are fully rolling is adding stress on many teachers.
"There is a lot of angst about it," said Andrea Flinders, the president of the Kansas City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. "It's going to be a problem for a lot of districts."
Hogan Preparatory Academy is carrying on with its performance-based pay bonuses, funded by a federal grant, even as the state tests change, said Superintendent Danny Tipton.
"I anticipate the tests will be harder, and bonuses may go down," he said.
Teachers expect to be held accountable for their students' performance, said Ann Jarrett, the director of teaching and learning for the Missouri National Education Association, and teachers have struggled with states and school boards to agree on complicated evaluation tools.
The road will be harder going forward, she said.
"It's making everybody nervous."