For 30 years, education policymakers have been promising that if we just had the right tests and the right accountability systems, our education outcomes would advance by leaps and bounds. Yet each stage of enthusiasm is followed by a period of disappointment, and then a new improved set of tests and accountability (and a shiny new set of promises). Texas, which has always been ahead of the curve in assessments and accountability, started its TAAS system in 1982, but remains near the bottom of all states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
The latest enthusiasm about new tests may be justified, however. These are assessments drawn from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The CCSS are unique in several ways. First, they are national; even though there are assessments being developed by two large coalitions of states (excluding Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia, which are not participating), all state systems will be guided by the CCSS, eliminating much of the wild variation from state to state in standards and assessments. Second, the standards anticipate a focus on higher-order thinking, problem solving, and inquiry, which will encourage teachers to focus more energy on that kind of teaching. Schools and districts are already doing widespread professional development for teachers and administrators on the new standards.
Evidence-based reform could benefit from the Common Core State Assessments if government and innovators make the right moves. First, with most states adopting similar Common Core-influenced assessments, developers and innovators can have some confidence that a curriculum they created and successfully evaluated in Maine would also fit standards in Arizona and Oregon. Second, the transition to common core will motivate district and state leaders to do a lot of professional development, and, if they are wise, they will see this as an opportunity to introduce proven programs and practices of all kinds (aligned with CCSS, of course.) For example, the Common Core Teaching Standards are very compatible with cooperative learning, so professional development for Common Core could also focus on proven strategies for cooperative learning. Adopting new standards and assessments does not automatically improve outcomes for students, but it can provide opportunities to improve teaching and learning. I hope policymakers will use this opportunity to invest in teachers. Improving standards and assessments is necessary and useful, but the bigger challenge is in helping teachers use proven teaching strategies every day.