The Rise and Fall of Common Assessments

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 29, 2016

In 1984, President Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, introduced a new innovation at the Department of Education (ED). It was called the “wall chart”, and it ranked all 50 states’ educational systems on the basis of their average SAT scores. It was an admittedly crude measure of educational effectiveness. After all, no school’s curriculum was actually aligned with the SAT, and only a minority of students (those hoping to go to college) even took that test. Nevertheless, it revealed a desire to do something we still to this day cannot adequately do: use a common standardized test to compare how effectively states are educating their students.

The Race To the Top Assessment Competition


Terrel Bell. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.Terrel Bell. Photo Courtesy of W

The most recent attempt to create a national system of tests for the purpose of ranking states began seven years ago. As part of the 2009 stimulus package, the Obama Administration created the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) program, which offered education reform grants to states on a competitive basis. As part of RTTT, Education Secretary Arne Duncan set aside $350 million for an “assessment competition” to encourage the development of new assessments aligned to the Common Core curriculum standards, which had been adopted by 36 states at the time and was supported by the Obama Administration.

The assessment competition requested applications from consortia of states which promised to jointly develop and then implement uniform standardized tests. Initially, states had multiple financial reasons to join one or more of the assessment consortia. First, test development is pricy, and it made sense to pool resources with other states and the federal government to create uniform tests if school curricula were the same across borders. Second, states could receive bonus points on their own RTTT applications if they joined a consortium and took other steps to support the Common Core.

Ultimately, the ED awarded the money to two consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Duncan predicted that the tests designed by these two groups would be “game-changers.”

PARCC and SBAC Participation at Their Peaks. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

PARCC and SBAC participation at their peaks. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Over the next several years, members of PARCC and SBAC worked diligently to craft, pilot, and launch the new assessments, and many states expressed a commitment to administering the new tests when they were completed. At their membership peaks, 26 states were affiliated with PARCC and 31 were affiliated SBAC (some states were in both) – meaning that almost every state would be taking one of two standardized tests.

But from the get-go, the two consortia faced some challenges. First, they had to somehow find a way to promote assessment uniformity across states while also protecting states’ rights to run their own education systems. To make matters trickier, the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that the states had signed when joining the consortia were non-binding, and states had the ability to back out whenever they felt like it. When testing became more unpopular and the Common Core became politicized after the Tea Party Revolution, many states began to withdraw.

Today, only six states still plan to use the PARCC tests and only fourteen states remain committed to SBAC. Twenty-seven states now plan to use tests they created themselves or bought from testing providers, and three states (Massachusetts, Michigan, and Louisiana) plan to use a hybrid approach combining consortium test questions with their own questions. With the atrophy of the testing consortia, the country is now returning to the testing system it has had for decades – one that is not much better at comparing states than Terrel Bell’s wall chart.


So what happened? In 2010, we seemed on the verge of achieving the 26-year dream of having national tests capable of comparing states on their ability to teach a common curriculum. Six years later, we are basically back where we started.

There isn’t a good answer to this question yet, but a few explanations might be worth offering. First is the fact that the testing consortia were born out of federal bribery, and federal bribes work only as long as the money doesn’t dry up. When states applied for RTTT funding, their budgets were decimated by the Great Recession, and their school systems were on the chopping block. Anything that could save money (or offer even the possibility of federal relief under RTTT) was worth trying. Today, however, state budgets have stabilized, and the federal stimulus (and associated incentives to stand by the PARCC and SBAC assessments) has ended.

Second, the leaders of the consortia forgot something important: that education reforms are always about politics. Without a clear message and agreement on the good that will arise from their implementation, reforms cannot sustain themselves long-term. In this way, while the consortia believed tests were neutral tools for the measurement of student learning, to many people, they became political symbols imbued with messages about what topics are important to learn, how students should be taught, and how the learning process should be evaluated. Without an appreciation for how standardized testing policies could one day become politically weaponized and swept up into larger debates about the virtues of corporate-style education reform, the reach of the federal government, or parent rights, the consortia were never going to be able to hold together when political landscapes shifted.

Unfortunately for proponents of common assessment, the re-fragmentation of the nation’s testing system will probably continue in the coming years. I have written earlier on this blog about how the public’s support for standardized testing has eroded over the past decade, and how parents have begun opting their children out of standardized tests on a widespread basis. These trends represent a grassroots resistance to testing that was not as salient when the consortia were formed in 2010 but is presently quite potent. Additionally, the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act might even accelerate the demise of the consortia since it encourages state experimentation with new, innovative assessments. For these reasons, the future of uniform assessments now seems considerably dimmer than it once did.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.