Racing to National Tests?
Any national tests and standards need to be strong, substantive, and well administered.


Chester E. Finn Jr.

While everyone in educatorland obsesses over the $4 bilion competition among the states for Race to the Top (RTT) funding, the Education Department (ED) is readying a separate competition for less than one-tenth as much money that may nonetheless prove far more consequential for American education over the long term. I am referring to the upcoming announcement of how $350 million will be meted out to “consortia of states” to develop “common assessments” that are aligned with “common standards.”

Secretary Arne Duncan’s team is taking considerable pains to ensure that this grant competition is based on a transparent, participatory process with ample input from sundry experts, stakeholders, and the broader public. The ED has just scheduled three more public meetings to examine all of this, in addition to the seven sessions already held. The Race to the Top stewards are posing thoughtful, important questions and publicizing the answers that they’re getting.

Still and all, this competition — to be “on the street,” we’re told, by March, with awards made by September — is fraught with challenge and laden with portent. For example:

The simple fact that dollars from Washington are to be used to develop what will inevitably be termed the “national test” entangles Uncle Sam big time in what has, to date, been a non-federal process of devising “common core standards” for states to adopt on a voluntary basis. (The National Governors Association [NGA] and Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO] have spearheaded that process, using private funds.) Such entanglement carries unavoidable problems, starting with painful memories of Bill Clinton’s failed “voluntary national test” and including the widespread view that, although leaving it to individual states to develop their own standards and tests has generally proven disastrous, any multi-state alternative should be “national but not federal.” (Not that anybody is sure exactly what that means or how it would work.)

This problem is compounded (there has already been noise at congressional hearings and grumps from influential Republicans) by Duncan’s decision to use states’ participation in the “common standards” and “common assessment” processes as criteria for determining which states qualify for RTT dollars. The (obvious) concern is that, while such participation is technically voluntary, Uncle Sam is deploying potent incentives to prod states into joining. Duncan’s perspective is straightforward: He wants the U.S. to make this very important change and will use the tools at his disposal to bring it about. But that decision inexorably blurs the lines between “national” and “federal” and between “voluntary” and “mandatory.”

Further blurring lies ahead when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a.k.a. “No Child Left Behind,” gets reauthorized, for at that point Congress (and the executive branch) must decide how to factor the “common” standards and assessments into the academic performance and accountability expectations that will be baked into the next generation of eligibility for federal financial assistance. For example, will there be a “common” definition of proficiency (i.e., a uniform “cut-score,” the point on the test-score scale that separates “proficient” pupils from their need-more-work classmates) attached to the “common” assessment or will each participating state be free to set its own? If there’s a uniform cut-score, who decides where to put it?

Nobody has yet figured out the optimal long-term arrangements, in terms of organization, governance, and funding, for the new “common” assessments (or, for that matter, for the common core standards). RTT dollars will underwrite their initial development, but who will keep them updated? Who will administer the tests? Pay for them? Score them? Who will ensure test security? How will these assessments and their governance relate to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and its governing board? And much more.

These are matters that we at the Fordham Institute will revisit from time to time in the months ahead. They’re seriously important and, to the best of our knowledge, utterly unresolved.