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In state test scores, only a limited glimpse of the Common Core’s impact

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Colonial Middle students practiced an online writing assessment last year which is more Common Core-aligned.
Tajuana Cheshier

Many state officials say they do not think today’s scores are the best measure of students’ learning, since the test was not actually designed according to the state’s standards in math and reading, known as the Common Core.

Some test questions previously appeared on state tests from before the adoption of the Common Core, and the format of the test — with multiple-choice questions instead of open-ended ones — did not reflect the Common Core’s emphasis on critical thinking.

“I continue to hear from teachers from a number of systems […] and they don’t feel that the TCAP isn’t aligned as it should be to the Common Core, and that was the reason they didn’t get the kind of results [on the TCAP] that they thought they should be getting,” said B. Fielding Roylston, the chair of the state board of education.

For the past three years, test developers have narrowed TCAP’s focus, so they cover most of the learning targets that are part of Common Core standards rather than the old State Performance Indicators (SPI’s) standards. Standards determine what students are required to know by the end of each grade level.

The first year the state did this, in 2010, scores dropped, but they’ve been rising or static since then.

TCAP also still requires students to answer multiple choice questions rather than open-ended questions. Several Common Core standards require students to explain how they arrived at their answers in addition to giving the correct answer.

“We are teaching standards that are challenging students’ higher order thinking skills, and we have a test that’s still a bubble test,” said Erin O’Hara, the assistant commissioner for data and research. “Until we transition to assessments that are based more fully on the Common Core, we’ll continue to see people struggle on how to adjust.”

Students were on track to get a new test this spring, known as PARCC, that is designed with the Common Core standards in mind. But then House Bill 1549 was passed in April, mandating students take the TCAP in 2014-2015. Several legislators took issue with the state’s use of Common Core standards, arguing they took away local control and didn’t give teachers enough time to learn to teach the new standards.

Unlike traditional standardized tests, PARCC has open-ended questions rather than multiple-choice questions, and is taken with a computer, rather than pencil and bubble sheet. Proponents of the test think that means the test is better at showing what students have learned.

The state will choose the assessment beyond 2014-2015 through a competitive bidding process, which means PARCC isn’t totally off the table in the future.

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