The Common Core Coup: How the New SAT may force the Common Core standards upon American education

Jed Applerouth, PhD
March 16, 2015
min read
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Over the last few months, as I’ve travelled around the country discussing the forthcoming changes to college admissions testing, and particularly to the SAT, the conversation has frequently transcended the mere mechanics of a redesigned test to arrive at larger question of what role standardized assessments will play in American education.

Anyone with a vested interest in education has no choice but to contemplate the role of standardized assessment in schools. We’ve seen how school systems can abuse standardized tests. But we’ve also seen the failings of educational systems that lack the feedback and accountability such tests provide. When students who attained good GPAs in high school show up to college lacking the requisite math, literacy, writing and analytical skills to succeed academically (with some 40% of entering freshman needing remedial classes upon entering college), it is clear that we need a more effective way to measure college preparedness than an unstandardized GPA can offer. Conversely, when assessments hijack the curriculum and squeeze out meaningful instruction, we have an entirely different problem. There is clearly a role for assessment to play, but we are struggling as a society to define that role and its boundaries.

No Child Left Behind

We want our students to be competitive in the national marketplace, to have bright futures and meaningful career prospects. To attain these goals, our nation’s educational system collectively embarked upon the experiment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, which resulted in considerable changes to the educational climate and fallout for students and teachers alike.

NCLB favored multiple-choice assessments, which are markedly easier to grade than essays and other longer-form measures. “Facts” may be easier to assess than deep analytical skills, but critics warned that NCLB was tantamount to an assault on critical thinking skills. Under its guidelines, students faced tests that were reductive, inefficient, and used to excess.

With so much riding on test scores under NCLB, teachers were compelled to narrow their curricula and focus on teaching to standardized tests. Teachers were given narrow instructional guidelines, tighter constraints, and scripted textbooks. Their profession was “de-skilled,” as the creativity and art of education were frequently sacrificed to the attainment of test scores. Due in part to these changes, teacher turnover reached an all-time high.

The Common Core

In the wake of NCLB, policymakers launched the Common Core State Standards Initiative in an attempt to return critical thinking to the forefront of American education.

Though the educational theory behind the Common Core appears sound, informed by insights from a broad array of stakeholders and educational researchers, the implementation has been far from perfect. The uneven quality of Common-Core-aligned instructional materials and the lack of effective professional development for educators have drawn particular scrutiny and criticism. At home, parents struggle to help their children with Common-Core-based homework. In the classroom, many teachers have shown resistance to adopting the new instructional methods. Other teachers, however, are strong proponents of the Common Core standards and the effect they are having on their students. In conversations with teachers from across the country, I’ve heard them discuss both the increased difficulty of Common Core instruction and the value of deeper understanding and reasoning skills that can result from adhering to rigorous standards.

The Common Core has become a lightning rod for controversy, and what began as a non-partisan educational venture has become increasingly political. Major early supporters like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are now under assault by their own parties for having supported an initiative that now resembles, from some perspectives, a “big government” measure. Though it began as a state-driven endeavor, the Common Core now seems increasingly tied to Washington because states who abandon the standards risk losing federal funds. Several states, including Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, have withdrawn support for the Common Core, and 12 other states are witnessing political attacks on the standards, with active initiatives to have them repealed.

The Common Core and the SAT

Despite the political backlash against these new standards and the early challenges involving their implementation, the Common Core standards are making their way into the American education system. Curricula are shifting, assessments are changing, and college admissions tests are transforming to reflect the new standards. Though many high schools and states have refused to adopt the Common Core standards, if the pathway to college lies through a Common Core assessment, high school administrators and teachers will be forced to take note, irrespective of whether these standards inform their official curricula.

While the ACT was historically better aligned than the SAT with Common Core standards due to its origins in student achievement, the College Board’s redesigned SAT now takes the Common Core cake. Reviewing the new SAT questions, item by item, you can track each SAT learning objective to a Common Core standard. Because of its increased alignment with the rigorous Common Core standards, the new SAT is consequently more challenging than either the old SAT or the ACT.

A cautionary tale of Common Core alignment?

What happens to an assessment that realigns with the Common Core? Look no further than the case of the GED. After Pearson aligned the GED to Common Core standards in 2014, pass rates have dropped from 72% to 53%. In 2013, more than 540,000 students passed the GED; in 2014, the number plummeted to around 90,000. By aligning GED content with the Common Core, Pearson created a much harder test. The GED’s rival tests, the TASC and HiSET, are now picking up GED refugees in large numbers. The College Board’s primary rival, the ACT, Inc. is hoping for a similar effect when the SAT aligns to the Common Core in 2016.

In New York, when the state aligned its Regents tests with the Common Core, pass rates (using previously established cut-scores) dropped precipitously. In order to maintain respectable pass rates, students were allowed to miss many more problems on the new assessments, reflecting an incredibly forgiving curve on a much harder test.

We are patiently awaiting the release of practice tests for the new SAT to determine just how hard the new test will be and how many items students will be able to miss and still achieve competitive scores. Originally, we were expecting the first practice test in December, then in March, and now we are waiting until May for the first test to be released via Khan Academy’s website. However, even when we have the first practice test in our hands, we will have to wait until June or July to be able to score the test using preliminary scales. Until then we can only speculate regarding the actual curve of this new assessment.

By all accounts, the curve on this harder SAT will be more forgiving than that of the current SAT. In November, a student who missed a single math problem saw his/her math score drop precipitously from an 800 to a 750. This new test is simply too challenging to have that steep of a curve. Students will be able to miss more problems and still attain strong scores; we simply don’t know how many more.

Implications of new SAT for high schools and students

The arrival of the Common Core-aligned SAT has meaningful implications for high schools, both public and private, in both Common Core and non-Common Core states. By aligning the SAT with the Common Core standards, The College Board will force administrators and teachers to grapple with the new standards. I’ve been speaking with school administrators who are nervous about this new SAT. “We don’t teach to Common Core standards; how will that affect our students?” “Will our IB students be ready?” How about students with learning differences or students from lower socio-economic backgrounds?

Each student subpopulation will experience the shift, with perhaps disparate outcomes. At a high level, when it’s all said and done, students who have not had adequate exposure to the Common Core will most likely struggle with the new SAT, especially in comparison to peers coming from schools or school districts with a K-12 Common Core curriculum.

In Closing

It is clear that in order to succeed on the new SAT, many students will need explicit instruction and practice. This was not the stated aim of the College Board in aligning the SAT to the Common Core, but it will be one of its effects. Free resources such as practice through Khan Academy will be available, and schools that do not provide explicit SAT instruction should strongly encourage their students to utilize these free resources.

The debate over the New SAT and the Common Core is only beginning. It is part of a broader conversation regarding what we intend to teach our children and how we intend to define academic success and college and career readiness. Education in America is changing, and it’s appropriate that our assessments change in kind. During most any period of change and transition, it is inevitable that there will be some discomfort, and even some short-term pain, the likes of which we are beginning to feel. When we are through this transition, and we can accurately measure student outcomes under the Common Core, we’ll see if we’ve made progress toward better preparing our students and faithfully assessing their readiness for college and careers.

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