Common Core State Standards: Student Assessments

William H. Young

Forthcoming assessments of student achievement using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), to be conducted during and at the end of each K−12 grade beginning in Fall 2014, provide both significant potential advancements and vulnerabilities for CCSS implementation. New assessments aligned to the CCSS are an essential component of systemic reform. They will be more accurate and helpful to schools and teachers than past state tests. At the same time, early indications that they will show many students falling short of CCSS expectations is providing fodder for those who would kill the CCSS. Education Week has reported that:

Having failed to persuade lawmakers in any state to repeal the…CCSS outright, opponents are training their fire on the assessments being developed to go with the standards and due to be rolled out for the 2014-15 school year.[1]

How state and local educational and political leaders handle the anticipated and actual results of the first-time student assessments will be another key determinant of the future prospects for the CCSS.

Student assessments are being developed by two consortia, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) (with 23 states) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) (with 20 other states).[2] Some states will conduct their own assessments. The assessments will measure the extent to which students have met the CCSS requirements for each grade and are on track towards potential college- and career-readiness.

Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Fordham Foundation explains that the SBAC and PARCC tests are being designed to provide summative, formative, and interim assessments at each grade level. Summative assessments at the end of each grade will determine student-, school-, and district-level performance. Formative and interim assessments will support classroom activities, helping teachers identify skill and knowledge gaps; target instruction at the whole class, small group, or individual levels; and track student progress.[3]

Joan L. Herman, a technical advisor to the SBAC, adds that assessments will contain new end-of-year performance tasks

which are going to ask kids to solve problems, synthesize information, reason mathematically, conduct research, integrate multiple sources, write coherent explanations, as well as make reasoned arguments.[4]

Michael McShane of AEI points out another new assessment feature in contrast with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) tests:

The main problem with the NCLB-generation of tests was that they were designed to measure proficiency at a certain level. That means that the difficulty of most questions was clustered right around the passing line so the test could discriminate very clearly who had cleared the bar and who hadn’t. Unfortunately, these tests didn’t tell us a whole lot about students who easily cleared the bar or who were further below it. Tests are generally more helpful, particularly for evaluating teachers and schools, when they can measure student ability all across the spectrum. That is what these new Common Core exams are designed to do….

Both consortia have made it clear that their tests are compatible with calculating student growth over time, a vast improvement over the current generation of tests….[5]

SBAC has defined four levels of College Content-Readiness or what it calls Achievement Level Descriptors (ALD) for student assessments at the end of Grade 11.

For Level 4, the student demonstrates thorough understanding of and the ability to apply the knowledge and skills associated with college-readiness. The student is exempt from developmental course work.

For Level 3, the student demonstrates adequate understanding and is conditionally exempt from developmental course work contingent on evidence of sufficient learning in Grade 12.

For Level 2, the student demonstrates partial understanding and needs support to meet college content-readiness standard.

For Level 1, the student demonstrates minimal understanding and needs substantial support.[6]

SBAC commented in April 2013 that:

The ALDs…are linked to an operational definition of college content readiness…Smarter Balanced does not yet have a parallel operational definition and framework for career readiness…it…will amend this document when those materials are ready for public review.[7]

PARCC calls its levels of readiness at Grade 11 Performance Level Descriptors (PLD) and has five levels:

For Level 5, the student demonstrates distinguished command of the grade-level standards.

For Level 4, the student demonstrates strong command of the grade-level standards.

For Level 3, the student demonstrates moderate command of the grade-level standards.

For Level 2, the student demonstrates partial command of the grade-level standards.

For Level 1, the student demonstrates minimal command of the grade-level standards.[8]

PARCC highlights that its ELA/Literacy assessments will “use authentic texts worthy of study” and pose “sequences of questions that draw students into deeper encounters with texts.” Its Mathematics assessments will “reinforce the concept of ‘going deep’…”[9]

While the new assessments will provide more helpful information to advance student learning, their implementation has several hurdles to surmount. As I’ve argued in earlier articles about other aspects of the CCSS, true alignment of the assessments with the CCSS will have to be monitored closely to intercept attempts by the Blob to corrupt their fidelity. Startup problems, such as new testing organizations and technologies and uncertain testing costs, will have to be addressed. And since CCSS reforms start in kindergarten and continue through high school, it will take years before the full benefits of the reforms can be realized.

There is already much angst about the prospects for soaring student and school failure rates under the new assessments. For example, New York State chose to align some of its standardized exams to the CCSS this year. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that:

New York state students math and reading scores on standardized exams plunged this year, which federal and state officials said could be a harbinger of results in dozens of states moving to tougher tests tied to new curriculum standards.

Overall, 31% of New York state students in third through eighth grade were proficient in math and reading on state exams this year, down from 65% in math and 55% in English in 2012 on different tests…

“The lower proficiency rates don’t mean that students are doing worse,” said Chad Colby, a spokesman for…[PARCC]…”The expectations of students have changed,” he said. “They’re actually giving an honest picture for students and parents and teachers whether or not their students are academically on track to be ready for a life after high school.”[10]

But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), warned:

I am worried that the Common Core is in jeopardy because of this. The shock value that has happened has been so traumatic in New York that you have a lot of people all over the state saying, “Why are you experimenting on my kids?”[11]

Ironically, such professed fear of future failures to the CCSS puts me in mind of Captain Renault in the film Casablanca, who says to Rick in his nightclub, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” as the croupier hands Renault a pile of money.[12]

Higher failure rates in the CCSS assessments should be no surprise. “College ready” is roughly equivalent to “proficient” on tests by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which have long disclosed far lower student scores than most state NCLB tests, as I highlighted in An Overview. The 2013 ACT college-entrance exam showed that only 26 percent of test takers met all of the college-readiness benchmarks while 31 percent met none of them.[13] The difference is that the CCSS provide the roadmap to necessary academic improvement.

Education Week reported that:

AFT President Randi Weingarten is calling for a moratorium on all stakes associated with the…[CCSS], saying that teachers have not had enough time or support to understand them deeply and shift their instruction accordingly….Weingarten says that it’s unfair to judge students, teachers, and schools on test scores that reflect material that hasn’t been adequately taught yet.[14]

Schools of education have not adequately prepared teachers for the CCSS, an issue I will address in the next two articles. Ending the Obama administration’s Race to the Top mandates linking the CCSS assessments and teacher evaluations, and allowing states and localities to construct their own evaluations when appropriate, is the sensible solution.

National, state, and local educational and political leaders have too long temporized about the tragic student outcomes engendered by the Blob’s academic content and pedagogies. To recover American public schooling from its critical condition, such leaders will need to: accept the reality of the likely results from the CCSS student assessments; appreciate that student achievement to the CCSS will take years to fully improve; and apprehend that the student assessments will provide, for the first time, systematic performance information for all K−12 grades and for all kinds of students. They will also need to explain to parents and the public that the CCSS and student assessments will provide school-by-school, grade-by-grade, student-by-student paths forward from failure to success.

It took the nation fifty years to create the tragedy that is public education. It will take more than a decade to regenerate it. The question is whether our leadership class will choose to pander to vocal opponents of the CCSS assessments—from both left and right—or will exercise the adult wisdom and fortitude to fulfill the opportunity that the CCSS provide. One can only hope, and only time will tell.

Next week’s article will examine schools of education and explicate the chasm that must be bridged to produce teachers qualified to fulfill the objectives of the CCSS.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).


[1] Andrew Ujifusa, “Tests Linked to Common Core in Critics’ Cross Hairs,” Education Week, 3 August 2013.

[3] Kathleen Porter Magee, Beyond High Standards: Supporting the Common Core to Improve Student Learning, Stand for Children Leadership Center, June 2012.

[4]More information on PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessments,” ThinkThroughMath, 15 July 2013.

[5] Michael McShane, “5 Things Every Parent Needs to Know About the Common Core,” The American, The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, 15 July 2013.

[6] Initial Achievement Level Descriptors and College Content-Readiness Policy, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, 26 April 2013.

[7] Initial Achievement Level Descriptors and College Content-Readiness Policy.

[8]PARCC Releases Final Grade- and Subject-Specific PLDs,” Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, 17 July 2013.

[9] “PARCC Releases Final Grade- and Subject-Specific PLDs.”

[10] Lisa Fleisher and Stephanie Banchero, “National Test-Score Declines Are Likely,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 August 2013.

[11] Motoko Rich, “School Standards’ Debut Is Rocky, and Critics Pounce,” The New York Times, 15 August 2013.

[14] Catherine Gewertz, “Teachers’ Union President: Halt All High Stakes Linked to Common Core, Education Week, 30 April 2013.


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