The Common Core is Dead. Long Live the Common Core.
In December Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), new legislation that replaces the often criticized No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Under NCLB, which had been in place since 2001, the federal government offered financial incentives (i.e., “Race to the Top” funds) to convince an initial 45 states (now reduced to 42) to adopt the Common Core standards. ESSA, by contrast, signifies a clear move away from federally prescribed standards. The updated legislation expressly forbids federal regulators from attempting to “influence, incentivize, or coerce” states to adopt the Common Core. This legislative shift could have important implications for student assessment and testing.
The testing giants witnessed the broad adoption of the Common Core standards under the aegis of NCLB and recognized the benefits of aligning their assessments to the new standards. The ACT, Inc., touting the superior Common Core-alignment of the ACT, successfully secured 20 state-wide ACT contracts. After aligning its flagship SAT to the Common Core standards, the College Board has been a much stronger competitor for state contracts, adding five new SAT states in a span of eight months. Additionally the new testing consortia, PARRC and Smarter Balanced, began to administer assessments designed expressly to gauge mastery of Common Core standards.
Now that ESSA affords the states more flexibility with regard to educational standards, will we see movement away from the Common Core? Will the Common Core-aligned SAT and ACT remain prime candidates for statewide assessment contracts? For now, it seems the Common Core will continue to form the backbone of educational standards in most states; rapid devolution from a unified set of standards to 50 highly distinct sets of standards seems unlikely for a number of reasons.
A great many industrialized nations have a uniform set of educational standards, which do not vary by state, region or province. What benefit could we derive from having highly divergent educational standards between states? Across the country, our young people are competing for similar spots in college and in the workforce. Do the students of Wyoming need educational standards that are so radically different from those in New Hampshire? Second, even for states that perceive highly divergent educational needs within their borders, it is not easy to rewrite a comprehensive body of research-based K-12 educational standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, a public and private sector partnership, required a deep investment of human and economic capital that few states will be able to adequately make independently.
We are more likely to see states tweaking and reinterpreting the standards, rather than wholesale rejecting them. This seems to be what is taking place in New York, where Governor Cuomo launched a a Common Core Task Force to investigate how New York can modify the Common Core to best serve New Yorkers. The task force recommended, among other things, more flexible interpretation of the Core standards, broader integration of feedback from local stakeholders, and reconsideration of the age-appropriateness of particular standards. Rather than throw the Common Core into the wastebin of history, New York educators have chosen to modify the Core standards and adapt implementation to meet the state’s unique needs.
If states follow this model, then the Common-Core aligned SAT, ACT, PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests will remain useful. ESSA, like NCLB, continues to mandate that high school students take at least one standardized Math and Reading test during high school. Many states have been using the ACT or the SAT to meet this federally mandated testing requirement, while concurrently preparing their students for college admissions, allowing states to meet two key assessment needs with a single test. Reducing the overall testing burden on students is a goal that parents and policymakers alike are lining up behind. Additionally, researchers have found that statewide college admission testing has led to an uptick in college attendance, which is another benefit.
Whether the Common Core is sustained, amended by individual states, or rejected outright, it is clear that the College Board is now married to its new Common Core-aligned SAT for years to come; another complete redesign seems highly unlikely in the near term. From initial signs, we anticipate that superior Common Core-alignment will continue to serve both the College Board and the ACT, Inc., helping them to secure additional statewide contracts across the nation.