May 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

THINK

Strong assessment tests are key to strong schools

Are Michigan students taking the right tests? (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)

Common Core State Standards have had quite a year in Michigan.

After a near-death experience in the spring of 2013, when a handful of legislators delayed their implementation via a budget provision, despite strong support from the stateís business and education community, they sprang back to life in October when bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to proceed full speed ahead.

Thatís the good news. The bad news is that another major challenge lurks for the Great Lakes State and its education reform efforts: The misguided desire by some to move away from rigorous, Common Core-aligned student assessments, assessments that allow us to see progress, identify problems, and measure Michigan against other states in the nation ó critical in our global economy.

Those of us who support standards-based reforms like the Common Core understand that standards alone are just words on paper. Thatís why scholars such as Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution have found that states with stronger standards in the pre-Common Core era didnít necessarily perform better on national tests of student achievement. Thatís not surprising; it would be like thinking that developing countries that adopt better constitutions would automatically have better functioning governments or economies. Constitutions, like standards, can lay a strong or weak foundation, but their success will depend on many other factors.

In the world of school reform, the most important complement to good standards is an aligned, challenging assessment. In other words, a really good test. After all, we know that in todayís high-accountability education system, teachers feel pressure to teach to the test. If thatís a test worth teaching toólike an Advanced Placement examóthen this pressure can be healthy, as it encourages excellent teaching in the classroom.

But if itís a low-level, fill-in-the-blank exam, then any benefits of high, well-written standards are washed away, as the test becomes the de facto standard.

One of the goals of the Common Core effort is to usher in a new generation of high quality, truly aligned tests ó tests worth teaching to. Thankfully, two groups of states ó the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness ó have been developing such tests. (Michigan is part of the Smarter Balanced group.)

These assessments aim to be better than todayís tests. They have been designed, from scratch, to match the challenging standards of the Common Core. Rather than assess just the lowest-level skills, they seek to detect whether students are mastering the difficult material, too. For instance, they will put a much greater focus on writing than most previous assessments, and will push students to demonstrate that they can make an argument based on the evidence they encounter in fiction or non-fiction texts.

These assessments will also more accurately pinpoint precisely what students do and donít know and what they can and canít do ó to help teachers help students make progress, and to more fairly judge the performance of our teachers, schools, and systems.

Some people believe that these next generation tests are unnecessary ó that any off-the-shelf assessment can be matched to the new, higher standards, as long as the bar for a passing score is set high enough.

And itís certainly true that yesterdayís tests sent false signals to students, families, and educators that all was well when in fact many young people were not on track for success.

But the genius of the Common Core is not just in their rigor, but in their call for teaching and learning that actually prepares students for the challenges to come. We know, for instance, that young students must master arithmetic, their math facts, and fractions if they are to excel in higher level math as teenagers. They must also learn about history, science, art, music, and literature if they are to become proficient readers.

So designers of Common Core tests must be careful to focus on those key topics in the early grades, just as the Common Core standards do. Off-the-shelf tests of generic skills wonít suffice.

The job of a test is to both pinpoint what students know and can do and to encourage good teaching and learning in the classroom. The Smarter Balanced assessment ó which Michigan leaders helped to create ó appears to meet this very high standard. Thatís why it has had the support of groups including Business Leaders for Michigan, along with responsible educator groups who are going to be held accountable for progress in raising student achievement.

Michael J. Petrilli is an alumnus of the University of Michigan and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.