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Preparing for the New Common Core State Standards Tests

By Monica Jerbi

As the 2014-15 school year rapidly approaches, many schools in the country must make instructional shifts to move students toward rigorous independent thinking and learning under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

According to two recent National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) briefs co-authored by Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) Executive Director Christine Mason, the majority of the nation’s elementary and middle-level principals are concerned that states and districts are not doing enough to prepare principals to lead these transitions and support their instructional leadership needs. The briefs detail the results of two surveys reflecting the views of 1,000 principals in 14 states that have adopted CCSS. One of the surveys focuses specifically on urban schools.

Despite having received some professional development provided by states and districts, the majority of principals indicated a lack of necessary preparation to lead and sustain the vision of CCSS over the long term. Principals noted a compelling need for more adequate preparation and professional development in specific leadership areas, such as how to manage the change process in the schools, evaluate teachers’ use of the new standards during instruction, align the school’s instructional focus, make key decisions on the best types of professional development to support teachers, and develop extended learning opportunities to sufficiently address CCSS implementation.

A majority of the principals surveyed also said that they need sufficient allocation of financial resources to implement the array of school-based activities related to CCSS, or for their schools and teachers.

Common Core Tests and Cautions

The new CCSS computer-based tests will measure deeper levels of learning’”particularly those related to mastering and applying complex thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills’”according to National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) study released in January 2013. The study, funded via the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, also analyzed the evidence-centered design framework guiding test development for both the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as well as each consortia’s plans for system development and validation.

While the study’s report concluded both new tests hold a lot of promise for improving teacher practice and student learning, it pointed to technical, fiscal, and political challenges the two consortia face in bringing their plans to fruition. These include:

  1. Because both consortia appear to be on track to creating tests that are more rigorous than what most states currently administer, “initial results are likely to provide a shock to the public and to teachers’ usual instructional practice,” the report cautioned. It recommended schools and teachers make resources available to support the transition to ensure the new tests are accepted and minimize pushback.

  2. In the absence of promised breakthroughs, the report warned the current $20-per-student projected cost for constructed-response and performance task scoring could escalate, compromising the timeliness of results and placing enormous demands on teachers and other human scorers. It noted that innovations in automated scoring are required.

  3. Given tight budgets, some states may opt to omit the extended performance tasks to save costs, the report cautioned. The performance tasks are intended to measure students’ ability to apply their knowledge and skills to respond to complex real-world problems. Omitting performance tasks will compromise states’ ability to monitor trends and evaluate performance’”defeating one of the purposes of the new CCSS tests. “Responding to the challenge may well require innovation in performance task design, scoring, and equating methods,” the report said.

  4. The tests may unintentionally add construct-irrelevant barriers for students with disabilities and English language learners, the report warned. It also expressed concerns about the comparability of the with-accommodations and without-accommodations versions of the tests. “Developers will need to be creative in designing tasks, items, and accessibility mechanisms that minimize construct-irrelevant, unintended demands,” the report said.

Free Resources for CCSS Preparation

CCSS success will depend on the leadership of building-level administrators. NAESP, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Student Achievement Partners (the nonprofit run by the CCSS lead writers) and have developed several free resources to help schools and their leadership successfully transition to the new standards.

NAESP realizes that principals want not only opportunities to provide input into the Common Core, but that they also need assistance in planning, capacity building, and implementation. To help provide principals with that assistance, NAESP partnered with Achieve, College Summit, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the MetLife Foundation to produce a series of briefs on implementing CCSS. These briefs provide valuable guidance specifically for principals’”the briefs address instructional shifts, the changes in school culture, literacy instruction, assessment, and professional learning that will support CCSS, providing a primer for strategic actions.

Briefs available for download include:

The CCSSO developed the Common Core Implementation Tools and Resources Guide listing free tools and resources to point states, districts, and educators to promising ideas and tools in support of CCSS standards. The 30-page document, updated in January 2013, has sections on the following:

  1. About the standards

  2. Reviewing instructional materials

  3. Instructional supports

  4. Implementation planning

  5. Planning

  6. Mathematics Common Core resources

  7. English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) Common Core resources

  8. Connecting career and technical education to the Common Core

  9. Connecting English-language learners to the Common Core

  10. Connecting students with disabilities to the Common Core

  11. Defining college and career readiness

  12. Assessment consortia information

Student Achievement Partners finalized last year a set of guidelines for mathematics curricular materials to help publishers and curriculum developers’”as well as states and school districts’”design, evaluate, and select materials or revise existing materials to support “faithful” CCSS implementation. The guidelines, offering both specific and broad recommendations, center on the following:

  1. Focus: focusing strongly where the standards focus

  2. Coherence: Thinking across grades and linking to major topics in each grade

  3. Rigor: Pursuing in major topics conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and applications with equal intensity

Guidelines for English/language arts curricular materials were finalized in May 2012 (there is one set for K-2 and another for Grades 3-12) and focus on:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction

  2. Reading, writing and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational

  3. Regular practice with complex text and its academic language

All the guidelines are available on the Student Achievement Partners website along with several other free resources for CCSS preparation. These include collections of documents on:

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