Big surprise raises doubts
A surprising revelation in a recent Education Week blog item, “Can the Federal Government Fund Curriculum Materials?” creates more concern that the two federally funded attempts to create Common Core State Assessments are heading for significant trouble.
EdWeek’s blog contains a surprising revelation: federal law prohibits federal money from being used to fund curriculum for schools.
But, it’s not possible to create good state assessments without considering the curriculum. Otherwise, you wind up with tests that don’t measure what is taught, tests which may not even measure material that should be in the curriculum.
As discussed below, Kentucky’s assessment history provides rich evidence in this area. Click the “Read more” link to find out how the attempts to create nationwide education assessments are poised to run afoul of the very same issues that doomed not one, but TWO assessment programs in the Bluegrass State.
I think the people creating the Common Core State Assessments also have come to that realization that curriculum is critical to their effort because. EdWeek reports these people are now talking about developing curriculum materials. However, these specific assessment efforts are massively funded by the federal government, so such curriculum activity appears to run afoul of the law.
Why curriculum control matters
I developed the chart below the future of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Accountability and Testing System (CATS) was being debated in late 2008. It shows that really effective assessment development is a feedback process where curriculum creation is a most important item that must precede initial assessment development.
The process to create solid state assessments starts at the top box, where the statements of desired goals and outcomes for the educational program are established (now, often called standards). The process then moves clockwise around the chart to Curriculum Development. Next, teachers use the curriculum to actually set up instructional lessons. Only then do we encounter the Assessment block, where the assessments get created.
Leave out any block in the process, and the testing program can falter. Set up situations that can undermine feedback, and the process can also stumble.
The process certainly can run into trouble if different agencies control different block items in an uncoordinated manner. That is exactly the problem Kentucky encountered when its 1990 education reform law split up responsibilities for the various block items in ways that impeded feedback and cooperation.
Under Kentucky’s new law, while the state, through the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE), centrally controlled the tests and the statements of goals/outcomes, curriculum control was assigned to completely different groups at the local level. The main local group was the powerful School Based Decision Making Council (SBDM) within each school.
The result wasn’t good. People creating Kentucky’s curriculum were never really sure what the different people who created the goals/outcomes really wanted, or what the testers were really looking for, and vice versa.
By the way, in a move similar to that being discussed by the Common Core State Assessment organizations, Kentucky’s state educators did make an attempt to ‘almost create curriculum’ by creating curriculum frameworks. That didn’t work. Teachers need specific, well defined detail to create curriculum that is aligned with standards and assessments. Otherwise, they are left mostly guessing.
As things stand, the Common Core State Assessment process seems poised to repeat the very same mistakes that Kentucky has made over the past 20 years. Why the Common Core consortia think the outcomes for their assessments will be different from our sad experience in Kentucky quite frankly escapes me. In fact, I seriously wonder if the members of the consortia even know about the history of their ideas in Kentucky.
It should be noted that both Kentucky’s KIRIS and then CATS assessments failed after years of expensive effort (read more about that in the institute’s reports on KERA at 20 Years).
Unfortunately, things that went wrong in Kentucky are very similar to the types of things being proposed by the two new Common Core State Assessment initiatives.
For sure, Kentucky’s assessment programs went awry in no small measure because the state’s educators also did not control curriculum.
By the way, EdWeek says that Christopher T. Cross from the education consulting firm of Cross & Juftus raised the legal issue about federal funding for curriculum at a recent conference about the plans from the PARCC and SMARTER efforts to build those assessments.
Says Cross, while both efforts now talk about creating curriculum materials, a law passed a number of years ago (currently found in Public Law 96-88, which created the US Department of Education), makes it illegal for the feds to fund curriculum efforts.
Section 103b of the law reads:
(b) No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, or other instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, except to the extent authorized by law.
I’m not a lawyer, but Cross seems to have a valid point unless another law has changed or deleted this language.
EdWeek says the ban came about years ago when a National Science Foundation curriculum generated controversy and adverse reaction in Congress. Cross helped draft the bill.
Quite notably, EdWeek reports that Pascal Forgione, a former Commissioner of Education Statistics at the National Center for Education Statistics, says that the curriculum issue could be “the Achilles heel” of the PARCC and SMARTER efforts.
Given that test creation that ignores curriculum is almost certain to fail – dismally – I’d say that is an understatement. Perhaps a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars in wasted effort understatement.
The bottom line: if the Common Core State Assessment efforts cannot develop common curriculum, and it appears they cannot legally do that, then the resulting tests are very likely going to wind up just like Kentucky’s CATS and KIRIS assessments did – in the trash can.