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Common Core, Data, and the Road Ahead

Guest post by Robert Jeffers

Teachers are a resilient bunch—we face challenges from all sides: high-stakes testing, uncertain and evolving evaluations, a not-always-kind media, and most urgently, students with as many academic obstacles as hopes.

Example? Two weeks before the end of the school year an out-of-state student enrolls in my 10th grade English class. How do I accurately fill in the blanks of 18-weeks of unknown instruction with an ambiguous transcript and no readily available context-clarifying test scores? Two weeks remain in the term and this "instructional nightmare" is a real-world occurrence, one teachers everywhere face.

While educators can't provide all forms of stability for our students, we should strive to provide them with academic consistency by using standards hopefully adopted nationwide and assessments that approach as close as possible assessing mastery of those standards.  While educators can't change circumstances for families who must move to a new state, standards provide academic stability, giving students some consistency and continuity possibly absent in their personal lives.

Success in isolation is uncommon, but if you look at high-performing schools, programs, teachers, and networks, you'll find something in common: clear goals, defined outcomes, high expectations. The Common Core State Standards won't solve poverty or challenging home lives; however, they can provide a stable learning blueprint that has the potential to unite a profession across political, physical, and geographic borders.

The common core reflects recent developments in English and math pedagogy—emphasizing depth, not breadth. This trend toward rigorous, complex thinking goes beyond public school standards and is what universities have sought for years. We've already seen the College Board's prestigious AP Program revise tests for some of their most popular subjects—biology, chemistry, and various languages—toward measuring complexity of understanding in lieu of assessing large swaths of information. The board's most popular test, U.S. History, will undergo a similar change this year. Policymakers across organizations and governing bodies are starting to understand what teachers have known for years: Students can learn more when challenged in focused, purposeful ways.

Critics and supporters alike have raised questions about common-core adoption—its timing, its implementation, its cost, and the data it will generate. These are valid concerns that should keep teachers on their toes, especially with growth of assessment-heavy teacher evaluations. However, as a teacher who emphasizes project-based learning over targeted, test-informed instruction, I welcome the common core and its associated assessments because I believe they can usher in a new era in education that de-emphasizes rote testing and spotlights learning. What I do know of the new assessments is that many—especially those here in California—will be shorter to administer, adaptive, computer-based tests that don't rely on bubble-me-in multiple choice answers, but rather allow students more opportunities for interactive responses to questions. For students, families, and teachers standardized assessments can serve as instructive—though not perfect—instruments for checking student understanding across classrooms, schools, and even states. That information has value.

The concept of computer-based tests encourages me, as it suggests the results would be specific, detailed, and available rapidly, and thus could be used to immediately inform instruction. While there are many unknowns, the idea that data could be accessed quickly is a compelling advantage for teachers like myself. We hope the creators of the new common-core-aligned assessments have heard this call. Get test scores out to teachers as soon as possible, so that they can inform both current and future curriculum. Current systems delay reporting for weeks to months and seem more suited solely for penalizing teachers than for identifying ways to improve instruction for current students.

Among the most recent and resonating common-core fears are unfamiliar assessments and the information generated from them. No one likes being judged, especially when they have doubts about the validity and accuracy of the metrics involved. It's my hope that common-core metrics will provide both more accurate and more precise information on student strengths and struggles, so that I can individualize instruction. I want to tailor reading comprehension support for Miguel in Period 3 and grammar instruction for Alberto in Period 2—common-core aligned  assessment should help me do that. We hope that with the common core better data are coming. If these data are used to personalize instruction and curriculum to help students understand more, then I suspect that will help teachers as much as students.

Concerns about Big Data should not be taken lightly but neither should the advantages of analyzing trends that span hundreds of thousands of students. If the direction we're headed is assessing teachers based on student performance, we need to get that data into the hands of teachers so they can use it to support students. There's both a professional and moral obligation to get those results to teachers faster.

And if Common Core means fewer tests? That can only be a good thing. Years past my 10th grade students lost almost three weeks of instruction to mandated exit exams, mandated practice exams for those exams, three separate district-mandated periodic assessments that required maybe two days of administration, the PSAT, second-language testing, and the mandated battery of tests that came from the state.  Put simply: If I'm testing, I'm not teaching. It is my hope that with better, more comprehensive data, we can phase out the test overload.

It feels as though Common Core opponents espouse the adage: "Take the devil you know versus the devil you don't." However, our current system is too problematic for teachers and students alike, and a more cohesive, more rigorous education is needed for all students. Despite the real challenges to implementation and the hard work that Common Core presents, this is an opportunity to improve education on a national scale, hopefully moving forward together.

Robert Jeffers is a high school English and film teacher in the Los Angeles school district, a fellow with the America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals, and an alum of the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship and Education Pioneers.

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