Missouri public school children spent untold hours this spring prepping for a new computer-based standardized test. It required written essays, details to back up answers, and raised concerns that such a drastic change could overstress students and lead to lackluster results.
That test has now been banned by the Legislature.
It’s the latest development surrounding Common Core, the set of learning standards that has led to parents yelling at state education officials at public forums. Work groups formed to recommend alternative standards have struggled with low attendance and, at times, dysfunction.
Lawmakers directed the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to sever ties with the test developer, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which provided 17 other states with exams aligned with the Common Core. The provision is part of an appropriations bill that Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law. It eliminates $4.2 million the education department needed to pay Smarter Balanced for next year’s tests.
“The money taken out was an absolute frontal attack of the perception of Common Core,” said Peter Herschend, president of the Missouri Board of Education, at a May meeting. “No question about it. What is tragic about that is, it will drive us to four separate testing systems over four years.”
The provision provides the department with $7 million to develop standardized tests to replace those developed by Smarter Balanced. But next year’s testing window begins in nine months. Developing a new set of tests typically takes more than a year.
The move has Missouri education officials scrambling to figure out how they’ll test students next spring. Not testing students would violate federal law.
“We still don’t have an answer as far as how we’re going to manage,” said Sharon Helwig, an assistant commissioner at the Missouri education department.
The move comes amid mounting criticism nationwide from teachers and education groups about the high-stakes nature of standardized testing and the amount of time it takes away from instruction.
In Missouri, 67 percent of more than 5,000 teachers responded in a survey last month that the state places too much emphasis on standardized tests. More than half of teachers responded that the Smarter Balanced tests this spring took up more classroom instruction time than past tests. The survey was conducted by the Missouri State Teachers Association.
“Our bigger concern is we have started to see year after year there are consequences to too much hype on a particular set of standardized tests,” said Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “We’re trying to figure out a system that will work better.”
In 2010, Smarter Balanced became one of two testing groups that received a collective $330 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education to develop assessments aligned to Common Core.
The Common Core standards were designed by the National Governors Association and adopted by Missouri in 2010. They are intended to bring more rigor to classrooms and better prepare students for college and careers no matter what state students live in.
Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-O’Fallon, has been on the forefront in resisting Common Core for several years. In 2014, he sponsored a bill that requires Missouri to consider new standards after input from committees of parents and educators. Those committees have been struggling with attendance since they were established, but nonetheless are scheduled to offer recommendations by October.
And this year, Bahr sponsored the measure to cut ties with Smarter Balanced.
“My crusade against Common Core was never against the standards per se,” Bahr said. “For me it was more of a state sovereignty issue. We lost state control of education. It was ‘whose’ standards they were, not ‘what’ standards they were.”
Bahr said he disliked the federal government’s involvement in promoting the Common Core and the assessments. He wants learning standards to be set by Missourians, not by educators in other states. But he also disliked the computer-based assessments that Smarter Balanced developed. He said that too many poor districts didn’t have the right technology in place, and that staring at a computer screen for that long could lead to eye strain for students.
Smarter Balanced also failed to live up to its contractual obligations. It didn’t provide the interim tests teachers could use to monitor student learning throughout the year. As a result, Missouri’s bill to Smarter Balanced was reduced.
“They failed in their contractual obligations,” Bahr said. “They didn’t give us what they said they’d give us.”
Separating from Smarter Balanced means that by 2017, Missouri’s public school students will have taken four different sets of tests. Different test developers often use different terminology. A child who knows how to subtract, for example, might not understand a word problem asking for the difference between two numbers. Teachers must familiarize their students with terminology used by the test developer to prepare them.
School district accreditation rides on standardized test performance.
“The tests keep shifting on us,” said Mike Fulton, superintendent of Pattonville School District. “It’s frustrating because of the constantly changing target, and we’re accountable to this target.”
Missouri education officials already had been planning to develop their own test for the 2016-17 school year. That work will depend on what new learning standards the committees recommend. The education department does not have to adopt what they come up with.
“I think people are well-meaning and they’re trying to respond to their constituents,” Helwig said. “I appreciate that. When they include language like that in a law it can have huge ramifications for an office. But we’re working on it.”
Department officials are considering asking for bids from testing companies for assessments to give students next spring. Whatever test is given will be aligned with the Common Core, which education officials often refer to as the Missouri Learning Standards.
“We should not be in the business of even bringing Common Core into the equation,” said Herschend, weary of the controversy.