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Caught Between Common Standards and Assessments

When it comes to common standards, we are pretty much past Adoption Season. (Remember? That was a period of about a year and half in which all but four states adopted the standards.) Now we're in Implementation Season. But if states' and districts' next step is putting the standards into practice, that work isn't exactly flowing across the nation in a rolling wave.

To be clear, there is some very aggressive work going on out there to implement the new standards. But we're also seeing a good number of questions, hesitations, dilemmas, and delays about implementation. A recent case in point was a study by the Center on Education Policy, which found roughly half of school districts reporting that they aren't really moving ahead in key areas—for a variety of reasons—when it comes to common-standards implementation.

The most recent round came in a conference call I had yesterday with the common-core leadership team at ASCD. A longstanding professional-development group, ASCD smelled the coffee on common standards and, like many other groups, began resituating itself to provide help to educators as they figure out how to put the new standards into practice. Lead strategist Efrain Mercado Jr. and policy director David Griffith are heading up ASCD's common-core team.

ASCD is holding summits in four states—Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina, and Utah—to gauge what educators need to move the common standards from paper to practice. One of their findings is that far too few teachers understand the standards.

"Implementation seems to have made its way down to the district level, but often not to the school level and clearly not to the classroom level," Griffith said. "There is a huge need for information, and also resources, about what this is going to look like. And overhanging everything is what the assessments are going to look like."

Most of you already know that two big groups of states are working with federal Race to the Top funds to design assessments for the common standards. Those tests aren't due out until the 2014-15 academic year. (EdWeek is hosting a webinar today, at 2 p.m. Eastern time, by the way, that will feature leaders of those two consortia explaining the work they're doing. Click here to register and participate, or to go back later and watch the archived webinar.)

What Griffith and Mercado have found in the state summits they've hosted so far is that while some states and districts are forging ahead with curriculum, and even revised or new tests to reflect the new standards, others are hanging back, uncertain of how and whether to take those steps. Much of that is because of the gap between the standards—available now, and adopted by nearly all states—and the tests, which won't be a fully known quantity for three more years.

"The uncertainty over the assessment pieces has kind of of paralyzed a lot of people," Griffith said. "It's given them an excuse not to do anything until they see what direction the testing is going to take. We've been telling people not to do this, that they need to get their ducks in a row and move ahead."

"It's confusing because we have accountability tied to current state assessments, yet we are moving toward new standards, but the assessments won't be ready until 2014, and [teachers] have to teach to them now," Mercado said. "How do they impact evaluations between now and then? How do they impact school accountability between now and then? It's left people with their heads on a swivel, like, 'Where do we look?'"

As ASCD talks with members, it's emphasizing that while the common standards cover only math and English/language arts, implementing them should be part of a "whole child" approach to education. That means building in the necessary supports for students to meet the ramped-up expectations, and making sure all students have access to a "broad and enriched curriculum," Griffith said. It means infusing the so-called "21st century skills" into learning, and revamping teacher preparation and professional development to encompass all these things.

ASCD plans to release lesson plans and other resources, based on the feedback it gets from members and its four focus states sometime in 2012, Griffith said. The group will also continue its series of webinars on the common standards.

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