Wednesday morning I moderated a Q and A session with Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the Foundation for Excellence in Education* conference (now referred to as “JebFest”) by the wonk set. The conversation covered a few topics but one in particular is important given Common Core implementation over the next several years. Duncan was asked by an audience member about student growth and accountability and reiterated his position that he cares about growth and wants school accountability based on that. But I asked him what, in his view, that meant for the new assessments the two state consortia are developing to assess the new Common Core state standards – that 45 states have said they’ll adopt. Specifically I asked him if he’d consider that effort a failure if each consortia did not establish a common “cut score” on their assessment rather than states being able to establish their own definitions?
His response is significant:
First Duncan made clear he thought it was fine if some states dropped out, as Utah did this summer. That’s important political cover and a serious point. Duncan noted, rightly in my view, that the media will make a big deal out of it if some states bail out but that he didn’t see some drop off as a problem. I would argue 15 states doing this well and with a lot of fidelity is substantively a much bigger win than 35 doing it under all sorts of accommodations and side deals.
Second, though, Duncan did not commit to the idea of a common cut score (pdf) or measure of college proficiency – he didn’t oppose it either, just did not engage directly with the question. Given the hands-off posture the Administration has to take toward the consortia it’s an area Duncan has to tread lightly and he may have been just trying to do that. But this is a crux issue. If the states get to decide on their own what proficiency and college and career readiness looks like state-by-state then many of the same gimmicks and obfuscations we have now about student performance will persist, just alongside a new set of standards and with the illusion of commonality. And the political problem for states, reform critics, accountability critics and so forth is obvious and starting to emerge: The new standards are more demanding and rather than show that No Child Left Behind painted too bleak a picture they’re going to show it painted too rosy of one.
In the most recently released Whiteboard “Education Insider” survey (pdf) we asked policy insiders about the risk of states breaking away from the consortia and doing their own Common Core aligned tests. You can see those results and some other Common Core implementation data in that deck.
*Bellwether is doing a research project about the status of Common Core implementation for “Chiefs for Change,” a network of aggressively pro-reform state school chiefs sponsored by the foundation.