Bailing on Common Core tests is costing states millions

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Nearly two dozen states have attempted to go it alone on standardized tests, pulling out of a multi-state test consortia in favor of once against crafting their own exams. This was supposed to appease parents worried about Common Core and avoid troubling test glitches, but instead it’s costing many states millions of dollars and causing bigger headaches than ever.

One of the key selling points of Common Core was that, by giving each state similar goals for each year of K-12 education, states would be able to adopt shared standardized tests that would make it easy to compare academic outcomes from one state to another.

Towards that end, two testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, were created in 2010 for the sake of offering multi-state standardized tests. Forty-four states plus the District of Columbia joined one of the two consortia.

But in the last six years there has been a major backlash against Common Core, and the consortia have been the chief victims. Since they aligned the standardized tests of many different states, they promoted the narrative that Common Core was nationalizing education. Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced also had difficult rollouts, thanks to ambitious attempts to have the tests primarily administered by computer. All over the country teachers and school districts had to grapple with technical glitches that left thousands of students hanging.

As a result, more than 20 states chose to quit their testing consortia between 2012 and today, and have instead tried to go it alone on tests once again.

But now, the decision to go it alone on standardized tests is looking like it may be a much bigger problem than most states expected. Getting new standardized tests doesn’t eliminate problems, it turns out, and in some cases it may just prolong them.

Tennessee was a member of PARCC until the summer of 2014, when the Common Core backlash caused the state legislature to abruptly cancel its contract and pull out. Instead, the state crafted a five-year, $108 million contract with Measurement Inc. to administer the new TNReady exam.

But Measurement’s attempts ended in catastrophe. It experienced a nearly system-wide outage of its online testing platform earlier this year, forcing an emergency switch to pencil-and-paper tests. In April, Tennessee simply canceled the testing contract entirely, sending the whole process back to the drawing board. The cancellation also forced the state to suspend testing for students in grades 3-8, meaning they will be unable to measure academic progress for those students this year. It had to sign an emergency $18 million contract with Pearson Education just to grade its outstanding tests.

Tennessee’s difficulties aren’t unique. Indiana, one of the few states to actually repeal Common Core, has had issues as well. It pulled out of PARCC in 2013, and instead opted to overhaul its old ISTEP standardized tests. The revised test generated hostility from educators, so this spring lawmakers voted to torpedo it completely and create a third, brand-new test from scratch that will be used starting in 2018. Indiana’s vacillation has been expensive; while PARCC would have cost the state about $12 million per year, the revised ISTEP cost $24 million last year and $16 million for 2016 and 2017.

Georgia quit PARCC in 2013, claiming the costs of the tests was too high. But its homegrown Georgia Milestones test may end up costing just as much, and it had a very tough 2016 roll out. Technical glitches forced the state to waive the test’s results for teachers and schools for one year, while many students were compelled to retake the test entirely.

Mississippi pulled out of PARCC in 2015, as a compromise to resolve Common Core backlash, but its new test was substantially more expensive. While 2015 PARCC tests cost it about $8 million, its 2016 replacement will cost over $12 million a year, and it still had some technical issues when it debuted this spring.

All of these states may still have had problems if they’d stayed in their consortia; New Jersey had some test glitches with its PARCC test this spring. But overall, states that have stayed the course on the consortia saw fewer problems than in 2015, and they also aren’t going through the trouble of constantly changing their standardized tests.


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