Three states take lead on Common Core, but are they moving too fast?

New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington State are among the first states to tie graduation to new Common Core tests. But critics say kinks still need to be worked out.

Shawn Gust/Coeur d'Alene Press/AP/File
Students at Coeur d'Alene High School take the Idaho Standard Achievement Test in this 2008 file photo. Idaho is planning to shift to a Common Core-aligned test in 2015.

States trying to give teeth to the Common Core by tying new tests to graduation requirements are bumping up against resistance.

Forty-three states are currently signed on to the Common Core State Standards, a voluntary system designed to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college. New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington are among a smaller number starting to link graduation requirements to the new and more challenging Common Core testing systems. 

For supporters, the moves are a natural part of the transition from the adoption phase of Common Core to actually implementing the standards in a meaningful way. But an array of critics say the process is moving way too fast.

New Jersey is planning to roll out its tests before it has even decided what the passing scores will be – essentially experimenting with the first students who take it. Meanwhile, Maryland is planning to divide its test results into two tiers, a move that critics say waters down the essential purpose of Common Core.

In all, 24 states currently have “exit exams” that students have to pass to get their high school diploma (though alternatives are available for certain situations). At least 10 states may use new Common Core tests in the coming years for graduation requirements, according to a report by New America, a public policy foundation in Washington.

The challenges being encountered by New Jersey, Maryland, and others point to potential speed bumps along the way. 

“Common Core tests are not ready for prime time,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Boston. 

The goal of the new standards and tests is to improve on abysmal stats like this one: About 40 percent of high school graduates in the US have to take remedial courses in math or English before they can start earning college credits.

But if schools raise standards without a giving extra support to the most challenged students, high school graduation rates could fall dramatically, according to projections in a 2013 report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York: The rate of students who graduate within six years of starting high school would drop from 85 percent to 70 percent.

As a result, states moving quickly toward fully implementing Common Core are being closely watched. 

New Jersey

New Jersey's plan had been to ease its way into new Common Core tests over three years. But a Sept. 30 memo from the state's acting education commissioner says the new tests for 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-graders will be administered this spring – and students can use passing scores as one way to meet graduation requirements. Alternative ways to meet the graduation requirement include SAT/ACT scores or a portfolio that meets specific criteria.

It’s a de facto graduation requirement, and “it is not fair to students,” says Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project at the Education Law Center in Newark.

Richard Vaspucci, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, says students will still have multiple options to demonstrate proficiency and graduate, and “since we believe that a great number of our students will do well..., we are allowing those scores to count in the student’s favor as one of the options.”

New Jersey’s new tests – developed by PARCC, one of two multistate efforts to create the tests – are so new that the passing scores have not yet been set. The plan is to give the tests first, then decide what the “cut scores” will be, and score the students’ tests retroactively, Mr. Karp says. Next fall’s seniors will have to quickly meet one of the alternate requirements if they find out they didn’t pass.

Maryland

Several states plan to use the new tests to establish one score for earning a diploma and a higher score for showing college or career readiness.

In Maryland, passing exams in PARCC’s English 10 and Algebra I will be required for graduation, while scores on higher-level courses will indicate college readiness, notes the New America report.

The Montgomery County Board of Education sent a letter Wednesday asking the Maryland Board of Education to delay the new graduation requirements, which would first impact the class of 2017, by two years.

“If a college-ready cut score differs from the graduation cut score, what is the most meaningful indicator for institutions of higher education or employers? What messages do tiered cut scores send to students?” wrote Montgomery’s board president, Philip Kauffman.

Washington State

Washington State plans to allow current students to choose between current tests and the new Common Core tests to meet graduation requirements (developed by the Smarter Balanced consortium). Starting with the class of 2019, however, students will have to pass the new math and English language arts tests, as well as a biology course exam.

But Washington students also have a new incentive to do well on the Smarter Balanced tests starting this spring. If they score above a certain level, state two-year and four-year colleges announced they will not have to take placement tests to start taking credit-bearing English and math courses.

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