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Can a Computerized Test Measure Complex ‘Common Core’ Skills?

August 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The new "Common Core" sets the standard for learning in America, but how do states test for these new, more complex and career-ready skills? Special correspondent for education John Merrow examines the challenge facing schools and teachers in measuring things like critical thinking and collaboration.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now the second of two stories on new learning standards known as the Common Core.

Last night, NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, looked at how it could change teaching and curriculum.

Tonight, he looks at the impact on testing.

JOHN MERROW: For close to 75 years, students have taken multiple choice tests. Although these tests may be good enough to evaluate basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, they will not be able to assess the more complex college and career-ready standards known as the Common Core.

ERIN GARRY, The School for Global Leaders: The Common Core standards give us a road map of what skills students should have and how students should be thinking.

Each of you needs to have at least two pieces of evidence that you would use to support each idea.

JOHN MERROW: These new standards require students to think critically.

STUDENT: Freedom of speech should mean what it’s saying, freedom of speech.

JOHN MERROW: Speak persuasively.

STUDENT: The Rub-A-Dub scrub takes usually wasted rotational kinetic energy.

JOHN MERROW: And collaborate with their peers.

STUDENT: This one has to be much longer.

JOHN MERROW: Recognizing that current multiple choice tests are not capable of assessing these complex skills and knowing that individual states could not afford the cost of designing new tests, the federal government stepped in.

ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. Education Secretary: I believe this new generation of assessments is an absolute game-changer for American education.

JOHN MERROW: In the fall of 2010, the Obama administration gave $362 million to two organizations to work with states in designing new ways to measure the standards.

MAN: Welcome, folks in the room. I believe we have representation from Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado.

JOHN MERROW: Close to 40 states and the District of Columbia are now working to create Common Core tests.

LAURA SLOVER, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers: This is your test. Our job is to make it reflect the vision and the best practices of states.

JOHN MERROW: Laura Slover is vice president of PARCC, one of the two organizations developing the tests.

LAURA SLOVER: These are going to look different, feel different, they’re going to be more engaging to students, and not as dry as a straight pencil-and-paper test.

JOHN MERROW: Students will now be tested on computers. They will click or type their answers, watch and respond to videos and manipulate objects on the screen. There will be some multiple choice questions, but test makers say they will require more critical thinking.

LAURA SLOVER: You’re not going to be asked questions like, what did you think about the thing you read? You’re going to be asked to say, what did the author think? Find evidence in the text for that to make that broader point.

BARBARA KAPINUS, Smarter Balanced: We’re beginning to push them to read more complex text.

JOHN MERROW: Barbara Kapinus works for the other federally funded group, Smarter Balanced.

BARBARA KAPINUS: By doing it on the computer, we’re bringing the kids into the 21st century in how they deal with information processing and language arts.

JOHN MERROW: But can a computerized test accurately measure the more sophisticated Common Core skills, like speaking, listening, and collaboration, skills that business leaders say they value most?

BARBARA KAPINUS: A lot of people want to expand this English language arts testing, because, for years, we say, it’s not just reading and writing. It’s listening and speaking.

JOHN MERROW: Are you developing tests, ways of measuring how well I speak?

BARBARA KAPINUS: No. We wanted to. And we had hoped to, but we’re not there. We can’t do that.

JOHN MERROW: If these new tests cannot measure all the Common Core skills, one solution might be to rely on both the tests and the judgment of trained teachers. Let them assess how students do when it comes to working cooperatively, listening critically and speaking persuasively. That, however, would require trusting teachers.

Do we, as a nation, trust teachers?

ERIN GARRY: What do you think? I don’t think so.

It seems like everyone has this idea that teachers clock in at 8:00, clock out at 3:00, go home and relax. But that’s not the life of any teacher that I know. So I — no, I don’t think the nation trust teachers.

JOHN MERROW: She may be right. The federal government demands that the tests produce data that can be used to judge teachers and principals, not just students.

BARBARA KAPINUS: The ways they want to use the data on this test are evidence that they do not trust the teachers.

JOHN MERROW: And who’s they?

BARBARA KAPINUS: I think policy-makers, people in Congress, governors.

JOHN MERROW: If the new tests do not measure Common Core standards like speaking and listening, will teachers teach them, or will they be tempted to teach to the test and focus only on the skills that the tests measure?

ERIN GARRY: There will absolutely be temptation to go back to drill and skill. There’s a lot of work on not just the teacher’s part, but on schools and on the DOE that needs to be done so that teachers aren’t so scared that they go back to drill and skill.

I was really proud of you for making sure that you used text evidence today.

JOHN MERROW: If nothing changes, in the spring of 2015, less than two years from now, students in about 40 states will take these new tests. The clock is ticking.