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Common Core Challenges for California

July 10, 2012

Today’s InterACT guest blog post comes to us from Alice Mercer, an elementary school teacher, educational technology guru, and blogger. Her recent attendance at the ISTE 2012 Conference provided an opportunity to consider again the process of Common Core State Standards implementation.  Here’s a link to her prior guest posts at InterACT.

exhibit hall

Conference exhibit halls offer educators a plethora of Common Core-aligned products

I spent my last week of June at the ISTE Conference (International Society for Technology in Education) in San Diego, CA. Given that the new Common Core standards feature the use of technology by student prominently, I expected the standards to be front and center at the conference. Since I’ve been blogging about Common Core lately, I looked forward to hearing more. The conference program promised a number of sessions on the subject. Many of these were put on by vendors, who were no doubt seeking to make money off the fear of administrators, but the exhibitor floor was where they went all out. It reminded me of a quip I heard from one edublogger about the exhibit floor at these conferences pushing products to cure your NCLB blues; now, everything seems to be Common Core “aligned”. Folks were excitedly discussing the new upcoming computer-based adaptive assessments which are due to roll-out in 2014. That brought another question to add to the five I’d previously raised: where on earth is my state planning to find the money for them? This led to some rather surreal conversational moments as I asked this question to folks who were excited about the new assessment, and their answers would often be a perplexed look, and the statement, “Well they have to implement this!” and I would say, “Really, why? We’re not in Race to the Top so we aren’t getting dollars dependent on this.” At this point folks looked really perplexed.

I felt it necessary to attend a session put on by the California Department of Education on Technology and the Common Core Standards. This was one of those sessions that broke every rule of presentation aesthetics. Okay, maybe not all of them, but it was not good. You can’t beat the situational irony of having a presenter read from a slide that has a wordy standard written in 10-point font describing how students will need to create effective multi-media presentations. The presenters had a huge crowd, showing there was demand for information on this topic, but as the 60-minute presentation hit the half-hour mark, folks started to drift out, showing that it was not meeting that need. I found out what I wanted to know though, and here is what it looks like the plan is:

  1. Each of the testing consortia (there are two – California is in the Smarter Better Assessment Consortia or SBAC) got some seed money from the feeds to get things rolling. It’s not a lot of money (~$175M), and keep in mind this is a multi-state effort.
  2. The first step in California is to a state-wide survey of technology capacity at all schools that will be doing testing, including an inventory of computers and tablets/pads and their specs,  whether the sites have Internet connectivity, and the bandwidth on that connection. Also, are the computers arranged in a way that is conducive for testing (are they in a lab, or parceled out at 3 to a classroom). They will set the minimum requirements for computers for testing based on this survey.
  3. They didn’t say it in this presentation, but next spring will be the start of pilot testing the new assessments at selected schools.
  4. After the survey is done, the state will issue an RFP (request for proposals) to bring the “system” (that would be every school that has to administer the test to students) up to at least the minimum requirement to run the tests. That would include backbone and bandwidth for Internet access, enough computers to test at least a class of students at a time, etc.
  5. We’ll be ready for testing folks!

Look at number four and then look around for the money to pay that. I know not every school in my district is ready for this. To give you an idea, our district signed up for Wireless Generation to the tune of half-a-million dollars, and had to abandon the effort in part due not having enough computers at some of the school sites to administer the assessments with the program. My school has a lab of computers, but all have <1gb of RAM, so depending on the minimum requirements, we may not be ready. When the state last got education technology money from the federal government, it was about $150M, and was not enough (nor was it seen as enough) to do a system-wide upgrade in the state. Everyone has focused on other parts of the cost – the SBAC site claims the tests will be cheaper – but everyone has avoided talking about the initial infrastructure upgrade costs.

I waited patiently to the end (where a question and answer session was promised). It didn’t start until the last 10 minutes or so of the presentation, but the second question was about costs and how to pay for it, and we got an answer. Someone from the U.S. Department of Education has suggested that states look at re-allocating Title I and NCLB money to pay for it. Like that money isn’t being spent already. I’m not going to claim it’s always being spent wisely, or on useful stuff (I’m sure some of that money went for my district’s signing up with Wireless Generation), but it’s also being spent on things like bilingual instructional aides and resource teachers. Frankly, given his history of hostility to standardized testing, and computer systems, I could see the could see the Governor vetoing any spending of money in this way. When I point this out to folks, they seem shocked, but it’s not outside the bounds of possibility.

Why would we want to spend money that way in the teeth of one of the worst fiscal and revenue crisis our state has faced? One ed tech type at the state I talked to pointed out that the consortium is setting up the system now, setting standards for the technology that will be needed, and what the assessments will contain. If we don’t participate now, we’ll be out of the loop, and subject to what other consortium members come up with. I say fine, let’s pilot, but there is no compelling reason to implement. Yes we risk being out of alignment between our teaching and testing. That’s happened before. Before the state switched to the California Standards Tests (CST) it used a norm-referenced test that was not well-aligned to our state standards.

I have a more radical idea. Since we’re supposed to be assessing through writing, why not just have teachers assess their own students through writing assignments? I know, there’s no way we could possibly be trusted to grade our own students work, but at this point, folks are wondering if we can be trusted to even proctor them doing bubble tests. It’s sort of a sad comment on our times when the idea of teachers being trusted to assess their own students is a radical idea, don’t you think?
8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2012 8:38 am

    The cost issue of testing is rarely heard, but when the idea of using schools computers for testing was broached, my first thought was the infrastructure at my site cannot handle it. Although we have labs we are constantly battling buffering issues and heavy volume. I am sure that we are among many sites dealing with this issue. As stated California is in no environment to assist schools in this area. Much of the Common Core questions that I have heard from fellow educators seem to get little definitive response. I also find it interesting that the ISTE conference was heavily populated by vendors hawking the solutions to the Common Core testing. Very reminiscent of NCLB and the plethora of big name publishers promoting their reading and math programs to underperforming schools and the fearful administrators who are looking for a quick fix. Lastly I think you nailed it when you mention trusting teachers to assess their own students. After all isn’t that what we are supposed to do?

    • July 10, 2012 10:33 am

      Yeah, and to say just let teachers assess students is now considered a radical notion, that no one is even mentioning, which is funny because they seem to want us to do more formative writing assessments with the kids. Why not just use those?

  2. July 10, 2012 4:25 pm

    I have had a lot of experience with some of the multilingual programs that you mentioned. They are a must is my opinion, but as you also eluded to, they’re expensive. While the government did pay for the program I also get a little squimish to think we dropped $1 million of licenses for those programs. I have to agree that sometimes people forget where that money comes from. I’m sure this is a great investment but that doesn’t make the money any easier to acquire. I could convince myself that $100,000 car would be a good investement (not really) but if I don’t have the money then I’m not gonna push the issue.

  3. Adriane permalink
    July 12, 2012 12:31 am

    It’s unfortunate that schools will be getting technology in into their classrooms solely for the purpose of testing.


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