Matthew Sanders: Utah Common Core testing fraught with flaws

Published: Friday, April 26 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

One of the key objectives of the Common Core initiative is to provide means for interstate performance comparisons. (KSL) One of the key objectives of the Common Core initiative is to provide means for interstate performance comparisons. (KSL)

In the 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Index, the United States ranks seventh, down two notches from 2011-2012. In this recent downgrade, business leaders indicated concerns of federal government overreach and waste, along with concerns with the political environment.

Businesses, educators and politicians often express concern for long-term U.S. workforce competitiveness due to its ranking only 34th internationally in health and primary education.

Such concerns have motivated an array of national, state and local education reform initiatives aimed to improve student preparation for college and the workforce. Most aggressive, perhaps, is the Common Core State Standards Initiative fostered by the National Governors Association. To date, 45 U.S. states have adopted the initiative, including Utah, which adopted it in 2010 and planned for full implementation in 2014.

A key component of the Utah Common Core implementation is a new online, adaptive testing system called Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE). The the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) contracted to pay $39 million to American Institutes of Research, a Washington, D.C., behavior and social science research organization, to build and host the new testing environment.

I applaud innovation in education and believe the pursuit of standards to improve competitiveness a step in the right direction. I also believe adaptive testing shows some promise. Further, I admire the efforts made by USOE personnel to hold town meetings across the state to introduce the proposed new testing approach to educators and parents — at times encountering some hostility from parents concerned about their children being subjected to unproven educational systems.

At the SAGE introduction in Davis County, I observed many concerns raised by parents. While there, I also asked a couple of questions, but the answers left me wanting. Upon further reflection and analysis, I believe the SAGE approach is deeply problematic, and I put forth the following questions:

Where is the evidence?

Public sector projects should carry assurance of maximum societal benefit for optimal cost. For approval, they should present evidence from research and pilot or scaled tests of the proposed reform.

Despite substantial searching, I could find no defensible studies anywhere on the USOE website, and was given no assurance by state officials that any pilot studies underpin the wholesale changes. They have not cited, as would be asked of any high school research paper, any support for their reforms. Thus, the USOE has implemented new standards, new curriculum and has spent scarce state resources on an apparently untested, unproven testing approach.

How will student data be used?

The contract with AIR contains no explicit protections of student data collected in testing by the well-known federally funded researcher. Despite repeated questions to USOE officials, they could provide no reference statutory protection of student data. USOE should provide complete assurance to families and educators that data are protected and not available for personal identification.

One of the key objectives of the Common Core initiative is to provide means for inter-state performance comparisons. However, the USOE FAQ on testing indicates that, "There are currently no national norms for the new common core or Utah Core Standards ... they cannot indicate where Utah’s students stand relative the common-core standards." So no collaborative benefits exist for developing a unique Utah test.

Why not a different approach?

Consistent with its mandate, the USOE is appropriately concerned by the college readiness of Utah students. Rather than wholesale reforms dependent on unproven curricula and tests, why not direct efforts to proven methods with known cost effectiveness?

For instance, the USOE could be redirecting the $39 million to Utah school districts to reduce class size and invest in technology, increasingly necessary to accommodate Utah's rising student population.

USOE can also deliver benefit by educating and encouraging districts to align with Common Core standards as national best practices in their curriculum development.

Similarly, Utah schools could adopt and adapt the use of ACT benchmark tests beginning in the 8th grade to determine college preparation progress. The ACT and SAT tests have long been considered robust indicators of readiness by educators and college admissions staff alike.

While the Common Core aims are admirably ambitious, the outcomes so far don't seem to make the grade. How about a rewrite?

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service. EMAIL: msanders@deseretnews.com, TWITTER: Sanders_Matt

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