"Unfunded mandate." Pick two words that New Hampshire taxpayers detest, and "unfunded mandate" would be high on the list. Too often, policies are adopted, often with good intentions, but with unexpected consequences for communities. Then we pick up the check.
This is the case with the Common Core testing that needs to be in place by 2015. Like 44 other states, New Hampshire has signed on to a new set of learning standards. The state has committed local districts to a test that is being designed by a consortium called Smarter Balanced. About $330 million in federal taxpayer funds already have been committed to Smarter Balanced and the other consortium designing the tests.
But here's the catch. All of this testing will be online, beginning in third grade. It will necessitate huge local costs for providing enough computer stations and adequate bandwidth. In the Conway School District where I work, the school board delayed the appropriation of $250,000 needed to become test-ready next year, but the district will have to come up with the funds soon if it is to administer the test. Inadequate bandwidth will be an expensive obstacle for districts across the state.
If we add to these expenses, the annual $27 per-pupil cost of administering the test, that could amount to an additional $54,000 for a district with 2,000 test takers. School district leaders need to be straight with taxpayers about these costs.
The test also has serious limitations. Beginning in third grade, children will be asked to keyboard their writing into a small text window. This method of writing, and the demand to keyboard, will create a difficult situation for children who have not been regularly writing on computers. This requirement will primarily affect students from lower income families and districts that can't provide regular access. The test, therefore, will not tell us how well the students write, but rather how well they write on a computer.
Another limitation is the mind-boggling decision by both consortia to use machine scoring for almost all the writing students do. Yes, you heard it right. Humans will not read this writing (too expensive and unreliable!). Instead, computers will look for "features" in the writing that correspond to what human readers respond to. The result - almost surely - will be gaming the system. For example, students will be coached to use expressions like "for example" and "in conclusion."
This decision makes a mockery of the claim that the Common Core State Standards will help students become college ready. The major professional organization of college writing teachers has come out strongly against machine scoring, claiming that it promotes formulaic writing. Machines cannot assess the qualities of originality and creativity that schools should be promoting.
Finally, there is the question of student motivation for the test - projected to be about 8-9 hours long even for third graders. This is over twice the length of the SAT test. It will, of course, be given in parts, but with little at stake for the test-taker, what incentive will there be for students to persist, particularly those who struggle or who are alienated from school?
For all these reasons, the best course for the state is to endorse the standards, but reject this unproven and expensive test. Instead, we should be thinking of how we can create better local assessments.
If we look at the skills truly needed in the 21st century, few of them can be adequately assessed on standardized tests, particularly ones scored by machines. We need to assess collaboration, sustained effort over time, the integration of literacy and technology, and an increased emphasis on writing in all subjects. We can evaluate these without expensive, unproven tests.
It's time New Hampshire asserted its belief in local control.
Penny Kittle teaches English at Kennett High School and works as a teacher educator at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of "Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing."