Sunday, March 22, 2015

Common problems with Common Core reporting

This from Alexander Russo in the Columbia Journalism Review.
"Something big is happening in New Jersey,” PBS NewsHour special correspondent John Merrow intones ominously at the start of last week’s NewsHour segment on standardized testing in New Jersey and elsewhere. “It’s happening in Newark … . It’s happening in Montclair … . And it’s happening in the state capital.”

The “something big,” according to PBS and other media outlets, is growing grassroots resistance among parents and students to a new set of tests being administered nationwide for the first time.
But so far, at least, much of the media’s coverage of this spring’s Common Core testing rollout has been guilty of over-emphasizing the extent of the conflict, speculating dire consequences based on little information, and over-relying on anecdotes and activists’ claims rather than digging for a broader sampling of verified numbers. The real story—that the rollout of these new, more challenging tests is proceeding surprisingly well—could be getting lost.

The tests under scrutiny were developed in conjunction with the Common Core State Standards, which the nation’s governors produced and President Obama has since supported. But since their creation in 2009, those standards and the new tests have become controversial among some conservatives as well as liberals, including some teachers and parents.

There’s no doubt that this spring’s Common Core testing is a big story. According to the AP, roughly 12 million students in 29 states plus DC will take the new tests. But looking at recent national media coverage, you’d think the whole Common Core enterprise was about to come crashing down.

Reality isn’t so clear. Efforts to convince state legislatures to roll back the standards and tests have fared poorly, as Politico recently noted. Last year’s trial run with the new tests generally went well, technically and otherwise. Parents’ willingness to opt their children out of the tests has been high in just a few schools and smaller school districts. Only a handful of teachers have endangered their jobs by refusing to administer the tests.

So the collapse of the Common Core and its tests may happen at some future point, but it isn’t happening yet—despite overheated coverage. I’m not the only one who thinks so:
“What’s missing from the journalism, and from the public’s understanding, is that students have long sat through hours of tests that their teachers may or may not find useful in helping teach better,” says former Education Writers Association public editor Linda Perlstein, who currently consults for clients including the pro-Common Core Gates Foundation. “People are blaming a lot on the Common Core, and reporters aren’t always critical and analytical enough in response.”
It’s not so much that the coverage includes factual errors (though there are some chronic problems on that front). Nor is it that reporters are being barraged with emails and tweets from testing opponents (though that’s happening as well). The real challenges are that instead of two simple “sides” for readers and reporters to choose from, there are multiple players with all sorts of views and interests—from parents and teachers to conservatives and liberals.

Then there are various technical glitches around the country that are hard to describe without over-generalizing, and the lack of timely information from districts and state education agencies that forces reporters to rely on anecdotes and advocates’ claims (about, say, opt-out numbers).
The March 11 PBS NewsHour segment illustrates many of these issues.

Co-host Judy Woodruff introduces the opt-out movement as a rebellion brewing in New Jersey and elsewhere and says if reports of students opting out keep building, “it could endanger the goals of the standards themselves.” According to PBS, anti-testing protests were occurring in New Jersey “just about every night, often with strong language.” And New Jersey wasn’t alone. Anti-testing efforts were taking place in Florida, New York, Washington, and Colorado.

“How strong is this grassroots test refusal movement?” asks correspondent Merrow. “Politicians are paying attention. Twelve states have already dropped the Common Core tests. And others are considering it.”

There are a few problems with the news segment. The opening footage showing Newark students protesting the local school board suggests that the new tests are a main concern of the protesters, when all previous reports have them rallying primarily against Christie-appointed Newark school superintendent Cami Anderson. Eleven of the 12 states that “dropped” the official Common Core tests have developed their own similar assessments, according to right-leaning think tanker Mike Petrilli. And—perhaps most problematic—the piece speculates about the future of the entire endeavor based on vague assertions about parents opting out without any hard numbers.

Students march in a still taken from the PBS NewsHour special.

Students march in a still taken from the PBS NewsHour special.
It’s as if someone told you that there were reports of violence in the Middle East that could, if they grew, result in the downfall of a nation. You’d want to know: How much violence? Where? For how long? Has this ever happened before?

The PBS segment isn’t alone in sharing some of these issues.

The Associated Press kicked off national coverage of this year’s Common Core testing with a Feb 17 story previewing the coming tests (Ohio Debuts New Digital Standardized Test This Week). However, it focused primarily on the controversies surrounding the standards and the mishaps that might potentially occur, mysteriously ignoring the previous year’s “field test” of the new assessments that had taken place in 2014 (and had generally gone well.)A March 7 Washington Post story begins with the observation that “A growing number of parents are refusing to let their children take standardized tests this year.” However, there’s no mention that mostly affluent parents are doing the opting out. That the opt-out trend “remains a tiny minority nationwide” is buried low down in the story.

A New York Times March 2 piece describes the opt-out movement as well-organized in New Jersey and elsewhere, leading to a “cascade of parental anxiety.” To the reporter’s credit, the piece includes a mix of responses from local administrators to the controversy, closing with a nuanced observation about a parent who signed a Facebook petition against the tests but is still going to have her daughter take them.

Testing critics are generally pleased with the attention and coverage they’ve been getting, though some feel that there’s too much unchallenged fear-mongering coming from the other side. “One area of weakness is a pattern of reporting fear-mongering statements by public officials about possible sanctions from test opt-outs/boycotts without checking their veracity,” says FairTest’s Bob Schaeffer, whose organization monitors standardized tests nationwide.

For his part, PBS’ Merrow defends including the Newark footage and the omission of the union’s activities. “Because [the Newark students] had more than one issue (quite a few, actually), does that disqualify them from being in the piece?” he wrote in an email to me. The union’s role in encouraging parents to opt out is inaccurate, he says. “We did not see strong evidence that the union was calling shots or pulling strings.” About the lack of hard numbers, Merrow notes that the piece acknowledges their absence at the end of the piece but couldn’t do anything more.

True enough, there is no statewide real-time data source tallying the numbers of students opting out of testing, and perhaps there should be. But at least some of the information from districts was reported by local papers. (Reporters from the NYT, Washington Post, WSJ, and AP did not respond to emailed requests for comment.)

There are some clear ways to minimize the issues around the Core.

Claims about opt-out numbers need to be verified through official sources (even if it means calling districts individually, as some reporters and bloggers have done). Wherever possible, reporters should find some way to give numerical context (i.e., in percentage form) rather than raw numbers, whose significance is hard to grasp. Speculation—especially one-sided speculation—should be treated like it is, one-sided.

Avoiding journalistic ambiguity would help. Readers can’t realistically be expected to know that “a small but growing number” could mean pretty much anything, that “across the nation” isn’t the same as nationwide, and that protests coming from “across the spectrum” doesn’t necessarily include moderate, middle-of-the-road organizations like principals’ associations.

There’s no question that something big is happening in New Jersey and around the country, but it’s not what most reporters are describing. Kids in New Jersey will take an estimated 90 extra minutes of testing compared to previous years. Roughly 250,000 kids are taking the tests every day. For the most part, the large-scale snafus that have been predicted do not seem to have occurred, did not take place last year during the trial run process, and should not continue to be reported until they actually take place.


Richard Innes said...

Columbia’s self-appointed journalism sheriffs started out making some good points about everybody else jumping the gun on what is really happening with Common Core this year. However, the Columbia crowd soon lassoed themselves into the same corral with those they criticized.

Obviously, there is no way at present to determine whether the opt-out movement will have much impact. Students won’t officially be an opt-out until after the testing is completed. However, NCLB and other federal rules (such as in the waivers) require that 95% of enrolled students must test (Columbia didn’t mention that). So, it won’t take huge numbers of students opting out to cause problems.

Also, while saying the data simply isn’t available, Columbia also writes:

“However, there’s no mention that mostly affluent parents are doing the opting out.”

How can Columbia know that at this time? Many states are launching their first fully operational Common-Core-based testing programs this year. Access to opt-out statistics is months, maybe many months, in the future.

Clearly, there is no way to currently identify all the technical glitches that might surface in the first live year of full testing with the PARCC and SBAC tests (Kentucky already dropped out of both some time ago). The stress on the technology and bandwidth created by many students testing in numerous states is simply uncharted territory at present. Yet, Columbia writes:

“The real story—that the rollout of these new, more challenging tests is proceeding surprisingly well—could be getting lost.”

It’s way too soon to make such a claim. However, as I recall the PARCC and SBAC initially were supposed to go live a year ago. That didn’t happen.

If the Columbia crowd had waited just a few more weeks before sounding off, they could have learned about problems that are already surfacing in 2014-15 testing. Two days ago Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week blogged ( about major technology problems popping up in Wisconsin that delayed the start of testing in that state. Wisconsin will now have a close overlap in administration of sections of both the math and English Language Arts tests – an overlap that was not initially planned (and probably not desired).

Ujifusa also indicates Wisconsin isn't the only state already experiencing problems. He cites more delays in this year’s testing surfacing in Montana, North Dakota and Nevada. The Columbia crowd would have been smarter to delay their comments in this area for a while.

I don’t know if this year's Common Core testing in other states with PARCC and SBAC will encounter really major problems, whether technical or opt-out. But, I do know that right here in Kentucky the use of open-response written answer questions on all of our Unbridled Learning high school End of Course exams has been terminated because the ACT, Inc. could not get the scoring completed on time within a cost we could bear. We’ve also had other technology problems, so a notable part of our testing is using paper and pencil accordingly.

Right now, we don’t know if the PARCC and SBAC, which both rely on a significant amount of open-response written-answer questions, will encounter scoring problems when they have to deal with unprecedented numbers of student tests. Delayed return of scores until well after the start of school this fall is already predicted in Ohio. Will even that delayed deadline be met? Who knows? Certainly not anyone at Columbia.

Richard Day said...

I’m not sure why you are disparaging the Columbia Journalism Review. Alexander Russo is an education journalist (arguably beholden to Scholastic, one supposes) and the author of the piece. One author. No crowd. Is Columbia on some right wing list of dangerous liberal arts institutions or something?

This isn’t that hard to figure out.

Despite efforts in numerous states to derail Common Core, it continues to be implemented in the vast majority of states. Opt out movements are ongoing in several pockets (mostly in the Northeast it seems) but it is nowhere close to a national trend. Russo is calling out his peers for media hype. That happens every day. Big whoop.

Kentucky’s experience is instructive. The first to adopt. The first to test (outside of PARCC and Smarter Balanced). In front of the political attack, five years in now, having tested for three years (and working through the initial 30 point drop), Kentucky has not experienced any discernible push for parents to opt out.

It seems to me that the states experiencing most of the opt outs are those later adopters where opposition was being established before adoption was fully implemented, and where teachers were less supported in the change.

It’s not over yet, but if the adoption of Common Core nationally were to be viewed as a presidential election, it could only be called a landslide.

Richard Innes said...


I think you missed some of my main points.

You can’t call an election before the votes are counted. The vote is still out on Common Core. My argument was about dubious timing of the Columbia piece. Waiting a bit longer would have provided much more solid information.

By the way, I also took a look at the author’s background and noted his tie with Scholastic. If you had checked further, you would have learned that Scholastic makes a big deal in their web site about producing Common Core aligned material. Scholastic clearly has an economic dog in the fight to support the Common Core.

Richard Day said...

It seems we agree on Russo's connections with Scholastic. But be careful. If we should reject, or view skeptically, the arguments of those who write under the auspices of others (and perhaps we should), what does that suggest for those of you who work for think tanks with predetermined positions?

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you look at KY's track record of adjusting, realigning, crosswalking or adopting new curriculum paths we are due up for a change in about a couple of years. Especially with a new commish in the cards soon, I am betting we will get some sort of KYCC-II revision sometime soon - it is just how things work out in this state every 4 - 6 years.

Richard Innes said...


Reject out of hand? Certainly not.

View critically? You bet!

Anyway, here is some more right-wing “stuff” about growing concerns with the Opt-out movement.

Oh, WAIT! This is Education Week writing this!

Per the Herald-Leader, concern even seems to be rising in Kentucky.

I think a lot of Herald-Leader staffers would be really upset if you called them conservatives.

Of course it is still too early to have much of an idea about what is really going to happen, but that brings us back to my point about the early release of the Columbia Journalism Review piece. It came out too soon to know anything certain, making it look more like an advocacy piece to support Common Core. It’s the timing that was all wrong.

On a different note, how can we work to insure we don’t have another education commissioner hiring fiasco al la 2008?

Richard Day said...

Ha! You mean the one lady in Mason County who says she's not aware of anyone else? That's quite a movement.

Will "they" all opt out of the ACT & SAT?

As for the Commnish, I'm with you. Here we go again.