The Common Core Assessment: One Year In

Sandy Merz Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Teacher Leadership

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Last August, shortly after we celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11’s moon landing, I wrote The Common Core: Are We Talking about Apollo 11 or on my Digressive Discourse blog. The piece was inspired by The Key to Successful Tech Management: Learning to Metabolize Failure, by Clay Shirky, which appeared in Foreign Affairs.

Shirky explains how the success of massive, technology based, federal projects depends on the practices of their creators. He uses Apollo 11 and  as examples and emphasizes that he is evaluating the implementation of the projects, not their merits.

I wrote that Shirky’s observations about going to the moon and launching offer a means to judge the implementation of the Common Core.


Now, I know the Common Core is not a federal project. But it is certainly a massive technology-based project of nation-wide significance that includes federal incentives, government bureaucracies, commercial interests, a divided public and profession, and the media spotlight. So, I think it’s fair to critique how states roll out the CCSS using Shirky’s standards. (Bold in the original.)

Then I summarized his standards as questions to ask about how one’s state has implemented the CCSS. Now, after the first year of testing in my state I can answer most of these questions.

  • Is there a mechanism to rapidly report significant problems? I don’t know know of any significant problems that came up at my school. Teachers were expected to report issues to the site testing coordinator who would help us.
  • Will the state’s Common Core technology be slick or frustrating? My school chose to take the paper version. It wasn’t slick and in at least one feature was frustrating. On some math problems students had to bubble in each digit, the signs, and the decimal points or fraction bars of their answers. There were no examples in the instructions that we read to students, and we’re not allowed to deviate from those. I have no doubt that many correct answers will be marked wrong because of a failure to bubble in correctly.
  • Is the state’s roll out a reasonable combination of features, quality, and deadlines? No. The test wasn’t scaffolded which means that upper grades, like my 8th graders, are at a disadvantage because they are being held to the higher demands of the CCSS as if they had seven years to get ready. Why the couldn’t roll out the new tests one or two grades at a time, is beyond me.
  • Do competing imperatives of broad scope with reduced timelines threaten the roll-out? Yes, beyond the answer to Number 3, my state has to have a school grading system in place. But a scale relating test scores to achievement level hasn’t been developed yet so the schools can’t be graded. Some schools, like mine, may lose significant funding if they don’t have a high grade. So we are under tremendous pressure to get a B even though the rules for earning a B haven’t been defined.
  • Does the state’s request for proposal (RFP) for assessments allow small vendors to compete fairly with large vendors? This is way out of anything I’m an expert on, but the State Board’s Key Values in Selecting a New Assessment, upon which the RFP was based, doesn’t mention anything about competition.
  • Has the state made sure that the talent necessary for implementation is being deployed appropriately? No. The best talent to write and implement the test is in the classrooms teaching. Yet, outside of maybe serving minor roles as consultants, teachers were not deployed in a meaningful way in the implementation (other than jumping through the hoops the testing companies held up.)
  • Shirky argues that overly meticulous planning eliminates flexibility too soon.The biggest challenge is not eliminating uncertainty but adapting to it. Is the state generating detailed standards and timelines too far in advance? I think so, like I argued in Number 3, in a period of two or three years, students in grades 3 – 12 became accountable for any material they may have missed. So I don’t see  student performance will reflect overly meticulous planning, the lack of scaffolding in implementing the standards, or something else. Regardless, there’s little flexibility to adapt to uncertainty.
  • Is the state practicing “Agile Development” and “Test-driven Development”- the processes of dividing a project into small, testable chunks, with progress continually monitored and plans continually updated? No, the testing company the state hired developed a massive, dense monolith. There are lots of committees working to evaluate what they came up with, but the agility in improving the implementation that a slower, scaffolded role out would have enabled, is lost.
  • Is the state avoiding a single, fixed plan to be delivered long down the road? No a single, fixed plan is exactly what was delivered this year.
  • Does implementation test the state’s assumptions and produce new information that can inform planning? I expect it will produce plenty of new information, none of which can inform planning in time to benefit the students taking the test or inform their teachers about their deficiencies. In time, I’ll get detailed information on how my students did on each standard, but that will be of little use in planning for next year’s students whose strengths and weaknesses might be entirely different.
  • Is the state avoiding the embarrassment of unsupported claims? No, I think the state has set itself up for huge embarrassment and predict that there will be some schools in which not a single student meets the standards. The state may be embarrassed, but the teachers will be blamed.
  • All new work involves failures and failures can be useful learning opportunities. Will failure be penalized? Draconian penalties, including losing funding and magnet status will be paid for by schools who fail to perform well. I haven’t heard of any penalties that will be paid by policy-makers who designed how the system is being implemented.
  • Are penalties in place for opacity and information hoarding? No, the penalties go to those who would like to be open and share information. For example, I have to sign a form acknowledging that I won’t read or share any part of the test. So I have no idea if I’ve covered the material appropriately. After the test, my students wanted to know how to do certain specific problems that they told me about, but by law I was prohibited from discussing the problems with them.

So, right now, I’d say the roll out of the implementation in my state more closely resembles the roll out of than the missions to the moon. Many may argue that it’s the first year and glitches are expected and the system needs to be tweaked before it’s fully functioning to it’s potential.

But many of Shirky’s points target the very question of how easy the project can be adjusted and improved in real time and the answer here seems to be: not very easy at all.

And all the more distressing is that students, teachers, and schools will begin to pay the price for the roll out long before it’s implementation has been optimized.

Shirky does get one thing wrong, though. Separating the implementation and assessment from any inherent merits of the Common Core is like separating breathing in from breathing out – the two are mutually dependent and and if either fails, the Core fails.

For more on the Core see:





I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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