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Common Core tests signal new frontier

New research is finally catching up to what most educators already know: A decade of teaching to the state tests has not produced deep learning or well-educated students.

Now, with the coming of new tests aligned to the Common Core Learning Standards, we are finding out what education experts propose to do about this. Heads up: The tests signal a radical change of expectations for American students and mean a radical reset in instruction.

The tests will become harder,as an earlier Insight column reported. Indeed, because it expects many more students to fail the tests this year, the city Department of Education will require only elementary and middle school students whose scores are in the bottom 10 percent to go to summer school this year, meaning some students who fail the exams will be promoted anyway.

In addition to being harder, the tests will also be very different. And in many ways the new tests will drive the Common Core revolution, by heavily weighting higher-level cognitive skills that U.S. students today are rarely asked to demonstrate.

“Research clearly shows that what you test is what you get,” said Joan Herman, the director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Learning (CRESST) at the University of California, Los Angeles and the co-author of a report on the development of Common Core tests.

“Because we’ve had such simple exams, that’s what’s caused the problems,” she said in a Jan. 16 webinar at which the report was released. “The problem is not teaching to the test; it’s that tests aren’t at a level where they’re worthy of instruction.”

Norman Webb’s four Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels is a common yardstick of cogn

Norman Webb’s four Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels is a common yardstick of cognitive complexity. Tests aligned to the Common Core that measure Depth of Knowledge levels three and four skills will become operational across the country in 2014-15.

Depth of Knowledge

Using Norman Webb’s four Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels, which is a common yardstick of cognitive complexity, RAND, the big national research organization, recently evaluated 5th- through 8th-grade tests in the 17 states that would be most likely to use rigorous assessments. It found that every state test was composed almost exclusively of lower-level questions, which do not require complex thought and don’t reflect deeper learning.

“We found that zero percent of students in the U.S. were assessed on deeper learning in mathematics through state tests, 1 to 6 percent of students were assessed on deeper learning in reading through state tests, and 2 to 3 percent of students were assessed on deeper learning in writing,” RAND researchers Kun Yuan and Vi-Nhuan Le wrote in their November 2012 report.

DOK level one requires simple recall; level two asks students to apply a skill or concept. It is only at level three that students are asked to think strategically, for example, by developing a logical argument or drawing conclusions. Level four requires extended thinking such as for a project, an essay or a design.

There were no level four activities on any state test.

Tests aligned to the Common Core that measure DOK levels three and four skills will become operational across the country in 2014–15. On pilot versions, 68 percent of English language arts questions and 70 percent of math questions target DOK levels three and four, according to CRESST’s report. They ask students to develop arguments, solve non-routine problems, use evidence, criticize, analyze and create — “teaching and learning that is not currently happening in most of America’s classrooms” in Herman’s estimation. The new tests will get teachers’ attention, she said, and make them focus on the Common Core standards and deeper learning. But the initial test results are likely to shock the public and upend teachers’ usual instructional practices.

How will this play out? Maybe like an asteroid collision. On the one hand, the education experts behind the Common Core know just how big a change they are asking for. On the other, they do not intend to let up as they see the Common Core and aligned tests as the only way to fix U.S. education.

A reset of expectations

“This is a reset of expectations that will be really important for the country,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two organizations that led the charge for states to adopt the Common Core.

But “the last thing we need is for our teachers to be surprised in 2014–15 by what’s on the tests,” Minnich added, as he called for “significantly better” teaching materials, curriculums and planning aids. Herman agreed, saying that how administrators manage this transition and what resources are available to teachers will make a tremendous difference in whether the new standards are accepted.

Teachers’ best strategy is to start integrating Common Core expectations into their classrooms now by asking students to engage in complex performance tasks where they must synthesize evidence, find solutions and create systems, Herman said.

Well, yes. Teachers have argued the benefits of these kinds of activities for years. The problem has been that these higher-level activities are at odds with prepping for the current tests — and with shrinking school budgets.

The Common Core promises powerful reforms to American education, but raising the standards will not in and of itself spur higher student achievement. Teachers will need proper support in taking their instruction to this new level. That means they need new curriculum that has so far been slow in coming, time to plan that is not available in the current school day and professional development tailored to the new standards. Without these supports, results on Common Core tests will not improve.

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