Let’s shelve the CSTs so the real work can begin

March 17, 2013

Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

I was troubled the other day to hear a colleague describe how hard it was to motivate a group of teachers to take on some aspect of the Common Core because they were “so focused on the high-stakes assessments.” I’m not blaming the teachers, but this reaction is a signal that leaders need to step up and admit that this particular emperor has no clothes. The only thing that makes the current California Standards Tests (CSTs) high-stakes assessments today is that we persist in caring about them.

Most educators know that California has requested a waiver from the accountability requirements that came with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). California’s request has been denied, which means we have to keep giving the old tests, calculating the AYP, labeling schools and informing parents. But as more and more schools earn the Program Improvement (PI) label, it means less and less. Instead of placing all of our hopes on a waiver request, we should grant ourselves a waiver—if not from giving the old tests, then from caring so much about them. Of course, teachers can’t grant themselves this kind of a waiver. They need leaders, including school board members, superintendents, business leaders, policymakers, community leaders and anyone with a voice and the will to use it to be brave enough to say it: We are shifting our focus from the CSTs and the API to a different, more challenging but also more worthwhile set of goals: those embedded in the Common Core State Standards.

Now, I am not arguing that accountability doesn’t matter (it does) or that we shouldn’t test kids (we should.) What I am saying is that it is essential to make space for teachers to jump into the world of the Common Core, start to experiment, raise the rigor with which they are asking students to interact with their content, and introduce more technology into the classroom. If we can do this, we have an unprecedented opportunity to transform education and engage more kids in learning more. But we can’t make space for teachers to experiment unless we do three things: First, stop talking about “high-stakes assessments.” Second, give the new Smarter Balanced assessments as soon as possible, not delay them as some well-meaning Sacramento policymakers are considering. Third, delay making the new assessments “high stakes.”

 The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is creating the tests that will measure achievement on the new Common Core standards. We need to give these new tests as soon as they are available, not because districts are “ready” and not so that we can use them to hold people accountable. We are not ready yet and holding people accountable can’t come until later. We should give the tests because they are the best way to communicate the rich vision of teaching and learning embedded in the Common Core. Starting right now, we need as many districts as possible to step up to pilot the new assessments, and we need to expose teachers, students and parents to the sample items being released. One report from a district that did pilot the new assessments is that, while their students didn’t score particularly well, the kids actually loved these new assessments: they were fun, interesting, challenging, engaging…all the things our classrooms need to be and, too often, aren’t.

This is a sign we are on the right track. Let’s get on with it.


Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.

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