Field Testing Common Core Assessments -- A Big Step Toward a Worthy Goal

The week of March 24 represents a milestone in American education that I think is worth taking a few moments to reflect on. Beginning on Monday, in 36 states and the District of Columbia, over 4 million students in grades 3-11 began helping to field test new assessments in math and English language arts. These assessments -- the first ever being designed to measure how well student learning lines up with the expectations of the Common Core State Standards, are different in several significant ways from the assessments students are used to taking.

The promise of Common Core standards, now being implemented in more than 40 states, is that they set a higher bar for what students should know and understand at each grade level. What hasn't changed is that even under these new standards, individual teachers and schools will continue to decide how best to teach their students to meet them. But because the Common Core standards are more rigorous expectations, carefully researched and pegged to meet or exceed what students in other high-performing countries are learning, they will discourage learning-by-memorizing drills and "teaching to the test."

Instead, the new standards require students to develop and demonstrate stronger mastery of core subject matter, to understand concepts instead of filling in bubbles, to think critically and to problem-solve. Those are the skills that the assessments now being field tested were developed to measure. Once these new assessments are finalized and actually administered to all students next school year, they will serve as an incredibly powerful tool that will help students, teachers, administrators and parents continue to improve education.

In fact, because these new tests are computer-based (though some students will take a paper-and-pencil version), they will act more like an entire set of tools -- tools that will accurately measure problem-solving and critical thinking skills, give feedback to teachers and students on strengths and weaknesses, help determine whether students are on track for college and career, and allow for even comparison of scores across schools, districts, and states.

But the truth is that we're not there yet, which is another reason this year's field tests are different. These are the opposite of "high stakes" tests, since they won't be used to measure individual student or school performance, and won't produce any student test scores. That's because the field testing that began this week isn't really intended to be a test of students, but instead a practice run -- a test of the test itself.

Depending on where you live in the country, field tests in your state will be administered by one of two testing consortia, either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. These field tests are needed to make sure that the test questions do a good job of measuring student learning, and that they are clear, fair and relevant. Field tests are also an opportunity for thousands of teachers and millions of students to try out the new tests and see what they're like, a year before the actual tests are administered in 2014-15.

And while this year's field tests won't generate individual student, school or district results, the data they provide will allow teams of researchers and educators to examine the tests themselves for how accessible they are, for the quality of accommodations available to students who need them, for whether the length of time students have to complete the tests is appropriate, and how performance on computer-based versions of the test compares to the paper-based version.

As field testing continues in the days ahead, I hope students, parents, educators and observers will keep all of these facts in mind. Giving millions of students and thousands of teachers a feel for what the full testing experience will be like is a huge endeavor, and a worthwhile one. So is giving the technology that will help improve teaching and learning a practice run. Will there be glitches? Absolutely, in fact one reason for administering a field test is to figure out where the bugs are, so we have time to work them out before the actual tests next year.

I intentionally used the word "milestone" to describe the process because it's such an appropriate comparison. A milestone isn't an achievement in and of itself, but that doesn't make it insignificant. A milestone is a measure, not only of how far we've traveled, but of how far we have to go. The ultimate goal -- an American education system that prepares every student for college and career, by equipping them with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the 21st century -- remains ahead. And I'm more confident that ever that together, we'll get there.