An Unfinished Track to College and Career Readiness

How we can use state assessment effectively to support a K-12 path that leads to postsecondary success

Between 2008 and 2010, I made regular trips to Washington, DC through Dulles Airport, working on projects related to the development of the Common Core State Standards and the creation of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium. As I rode an airport shuttle or Metrobus to and from Dulles, I would watch the crews grading and preparing the track bed for the Silver Line Metro train that would finally connect Dulles with the rest of the DC Metro system.  

Later this month, I will be attending a meeting near Dulles, my first trip back there in eight years. One of the first things that I did in planning for the trip was to check the Metro schedule to map out how best to meet my daughter in DC for dinner. Unfortunately, it seems that the task of extending the Metro to Dulles is still unfinished. The tentative, projected date for Metro service to Dulles is some time in 2020.

In many ways, the Metro expansion to Dulles is an apt metaphor for our field’s journey over the last 10 years; a journey that began with the Common Core and the development of next generation assessments to measure college and career readiness. The period between 2009 and 2010 was a heady time for state assessment. More than forty states had adopted the new Common Core State Standards with the Common Core website proudly displaying a United States map showing which states had adopted and which states had “not yet adopted” the standards. More than 40 states had signed onto one of the two assessment consortia funded by the Race to the Top Assessment Program.  

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in PARCC and Smarter Balanced would be a “game-changer” that would take us beyond the bubble test to a brave new world of state assessment. He declared that “for the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for — tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning” that “support good teaching in the classroom.” He was convinced that for the first time, “millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers — and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction.”

Where Are We Now?

Nearly ten years later, the PARCC consortium has been dissolved, the Common Core State Standards have been buffeted by a barrage of attacks (they remain standing but staggered), testing and test-based accountability are under attack, and as Scott Marion described in a recent post, states across the country change state assessments (and state commissioners/superintendents) much too frequently to support sound education reform and school improvement. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium rolls on, but many of the Smarter Balanced states and other states have adopted the ACT or SAT as their high school assessment in lieu of the Smarter Balanced high school test.  

Our Track to College and Career Readiness Lays Unfinished  

This statement is not to say that the efforts over the last 10 years have not resulted in any changes or improvements to large-scale assessments. Large-scale, computer-based testing is now a reality. The PARCC consortia did improve the quality of items and tasks on state assessments. Achievement standards have been raised in many states across the country. I am cautiously optimistic that the new assessments measuring the Next Generation Science Standards will move the needle closer to Secretary Duncan’s 2010 vision for state assessment.

But, our track to college and career readiness lays unfinished. Damian Betebenner asked, “how did on-track get so off track?” in a post calling on states and our field to commit to investigating “whether typical progress along different points of the status continuum leads to career and college readiness later in students’ lives.” Other colleagues at the Center are leading the call for balanced systems of assessment. Both of these steps are critical to completing our track to college and career readiness.

However, as I wrote in a 2011 EdWeek commentary, a first step to actually moving beyond the bubble test and laying a coherent K-12 track to college and career readiness is to “establish a clear vision for the future of large-scale assessment.” The path that we have been on for the last two decades is hewn by the question, “in what ways can large-scale assessment be enhanced to provide more information to and about students, teachers, schools, and districts?” Like the unfinished track to Dulles Airport, I believe this path will not take us where we want to go. To reach our destination, the central question that needs to drive our vision for the future of large-scale assessment is “what information is needed to support effective instruction and student learning and what is the best way to deliver that information?”