Education Secretary Lauds State Coalitions Charged with Improving K-12 Assessment Tests

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of education leaders Thursday that a federally funded overhaul of K-12 assessment tests will substantially improve the understanding parents and teachers will have in how well schoolchildren are progressing in their studies and becoming college and workforce ready.   

“Today is the day that marks the beginning of a new and much-improved generation of assessments for America’s schoolchildren,” Duncan told educators and advocates from around the country attending the American Diploma Project Network leadership team meeting held in Alexandria, Va., this week.  “I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game changer in public education.”

Duncan’s remarks centered around a Thursday morning announcement that the Department of Education awarded two state coalitions, representing 44 states and the District of Columbia, approximately $330 million in federal funds for the development of K-12 assessment systems aligned to the common core state standards in English, language arts and mathematics. The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) received grants in the amount of $170 million and $160 million, respectively.

The new tests will be available for the 2014-15 school year. The assessments, which also will be made available to states that do not participate in a consortium, will cover all students in grades three through eight and will be used at least once in high school. They will measure students’ ability to analyze and solve complex problems, synthesize information and other higher-order thinking and communication skills.

“For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents and teachers will know if students are on track for colleges and careers and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction,” said Duncan. He added that current assessments have helped to identify achievement gaps but focus on easy-to-measure concepts and provide too little useful information too late—most often after school is out for the summer.

“Most of the assessment done in schools today is after the fact and designed to indicate only whether students have learned. Not enough is being done to assess students’ thinking as they learn to boost and enrich learning and track student growth,” Duncan observed. “Better assessments, given earlier in the school year, can better measure what matters: growth in student learning. And teachers will be empowered to differentiate instruction in the classroom, propelling the continuous cycle of improvement in student learning that teachers treasure.”

The education secretary noted that existing assessments are just part of the problem and that the academic standards to which they are pegged must be equally rigorous. He believes that, in the last decade, many states have “dummied down” both their academic standards and assessments.

“In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close,” he charged.

As a result of the common core standards states have developed in the future, a child in Mississippi will be measured by the same standard of success as a child in Massachusetts, which is widely considered to have the highest standards. So far, 35 states and Washington, D.C., have decided to adopt the common core standards in math and English, and more are expected to sign on in the coming months.

Both consortia will involve teachers in the new assessments’ development, scoring and implementation and also will provide professional development programs to help teachers transition to the new system. Still, Duncan added, evaluation of teacher and school performance should not be based solely on test scores but on multiple measures, including student growth, attendance and graduation rates, matriculation to college, college persistence, AP and IB programs, and others.

Although the new assessments are limited to language arts and math, the Education Department’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act proposal would allow states to include other subjects in their accountability systems and include funding for the research, development and improvement of additional assessments such as science and foreign language.