Core Competency: What Other States Can Learn From Rhode Island’s Implementation of the Common Core

Common Core State Standards were designed to create common education standards — not common criticisms. But across the country, an unlikely coalition of students, parents, teachers, and politicians has united against one particularly controversial aspect of the new standards: the development and implementation of Common Core-aligned state tests. When Common Core Standards were first introduced in 2010, a wide majority of states pledged to oversee the development and administration of either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) as Common Core-aligned assessments. State participation in these assessment consortia, however, has slowly dwindled as opposition to the assessments has grown. This past school year only 29 states and Washington, DC administered either the PARCC or SBAC, some with more success than others.

In the midst of ongoing policy disputes across multiple state education systems, it is easy to overlook the few states, including Rhode Island, that have avoided major opposition to Common Core-aligned assessments. Implementation has not gone completely smoothly in the state — last year there was a limited opt-out movement —  but compared to other states, where Common Core assessments are being ripped up, the transition to the new tests has been pleasantly uneventful. Rhode Island’s atypical acceptance of the Common Core-aligned assessments provides key insights into the factors that determine whether Common Core implementation succeeds. Comparing the steps that are leading to success in Rhode Island and failure elsewhere can provide a helpful blueprint for implementing these new Common Core assessments nationwide.

Perhaps no state exemplifies the testing controversy quite as well as Louisiana. The state willingly adopted the PARCC exam in 2010, and, in turn, the Louisiana Department of Education took comprehensive steps to plan for the rollout of the new test. This included working with districts on drafting a 10-year accountability transition plan and drawing up cost-effective ways to update technology needs. At the start, the PARCC exam seemed poised to succeed. The trouble began when Republican Governor Bobby Jindal initiated what would become a long and embittered political fight over Common Core assessment. On June 18, 2014, his office issued an executive order suspending the state’s contract with the PARCC, claiming that the consortium’s contract with the State Department of Education had been signed illegally. The Louisiana education superintendent defied the order and promised that the implementation of the PARCC exam would continue as originally planned. Four days later, a group of Common Core proponents including parents, teachers, and charter schools filed suit against the governor, claiming his efforts to suspend the PARCC had no legal merit and were intended to cause chaos and delay in the state education system.

If chaos is indeed what Governor Jindal intended, he succeeded. In the wake of this political fighting, the school system was left with conflicting accounts of the PARCC’s status, prohibiting teachers from properly preparing their students for the exam. The fight continued until September, when a federal judge ruled against Jindal’s claims of federal overreach. The shaky implementation of the test, however, has effectively killed the PARCC in Louisiana, and the state plans on administering a different assessment later this year.

Louisiana is not alone in its rejection of Common Core-aligned assessments. Other states have also gotten creative in their attempts to kill the PARCC and the SBAC. This past spring, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich effectively removed his state from PARCC participation by writing its funding out of the state budget. In Arkansas, the State Board of Education — whose members were appointed by Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, another Common Core opponent — recently voted to replace the PARCC exam in a 4 to 2 vote. New York, which was a tentative PARCC member, entered a five-year contract with a different testing company, essentially ending any potential adoption of the PARCC.

Even within the states that plan to continue with the SBAC or the PARCC, policymakers have avoided statewide adoption of the tests. Massachusetts let districts choose to administer either the PARCC or the old state-level assessment. In neighboring Connecticut, Democratic Governor Dan Malloy recently announced that high school juniors would no longer have to take the SBAC, following a legislative effort earlier in the spring to scrap the test entirely.

In contrast, Rhode Island remains notably committed to its transition to the PARCC. Schools across the state administered the PARCC exam in grades 3 through 11 for the first time this past spring, and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) plans on moving forward with the test for the 2015-2016 school year. Rhode Island’s success rates in PARCC implementation provide an intriguing contrast to states whose PARCC plans have been derailed.

From the beginning, state education officials in Rhode Island understood the necessity of a smooth transition to the new test. Their strategy focused on two efforts to ease stakeholder concerns: providing support and guidance for test administration and launching intensive communications campaigns. Together, these two aspects of preparation enabled the PARCC in Rhode Island to avoid the excessive criticism and politicization that hobbled the assessment in other states.

Student access to technology is essential for PARCC or SBAC administration because the new exams are largely computer-based. Consequently, Rhode Island state policymakers made technological infrastructure an educational priority. To begin, the state approved a $20 million technology bond to help fund new educational technologies across the state. RIDE officials also provided support to districts by drafting intricate guidance documents advising current teachers on how to incorporate the assessment standards. In addition, RIDE targeted future teachers by integrating the Common Core into teacher training programs. When the PARCC was finally introduced, educators in Rhode Island had already been teaching tech-driven test content for years, easing any concerns about district readiness.

In addition to the technological upgrades, Rhode Island officials also focused on cultivating a positive public perception of the test. The Common Core has proven itself particularly susceptible to being derailed by political pressure. If state legislators receive enough calls from concerned constituents, they may act to limit or remove such assessments, as they did in Ohio and Connecticut. In Rhode Island, however, local school districts and RIDE drafted a number of materials — including informational videos, packets and one-pagers, webinars, and interviews with local media —  to reassure concerned parents and students. Officials also generated support for the test among other key stakeholders by including a moratorium on using the test as a graduation requirement and for calculating teacher evaluation ratings. Perhaps as a result of these efforts, articles in local news sources such as the Providence Journal and Channel 12 WPRI reflected positive views of the PARCC assessments, and local social media opposition to the tests was limited and relatively disorganized. In the first testing session this spring, only about 3,000 Rhode Island students opted out of the PARCC, a small fraction compared to the roughly 80,000 Rhode Island students who took the exam. Opt-out efforts were isolated to several districts, with most districts reporting nearly full attendance. Together, these indicators suggest that public perception of the test was generally positive or at least neutral.

Few other states took steps to mitigate a potentially negative public response. In New York, for example, efforts to prepare the public for the new tests were relatively limited. It came as no surprise, then, when parents and students reacted negatively to the much more difficult, complex exam. As Democratic Governor Andrew M. Cuomo recently admitted, “The implementation of the Common Core just did not work.” In New Jersey, a strong anti-testing lobby formed, launching a cycle of attack ads against the PARCC assessment. Florida’s resistance focused on controversial policies connected to the outcomes, including teacher evaluation measures and student graduation requirements. Such policies have attracted many critics, polarizing the issue and driving calls for repeal. Rhode Island avoided most opposition, in part, by assuaging the fears of these potential critics.

Political opposition to Common Core-aligned assessments is perhaps a symptom of a larger implementation failure. Hoping to capitalize on growing opposition, Governors Jindal, Hutchinson, Kasich, and Cuomo have embraced efforts to roll back Common Core-aligned assessments. But the resistance originated in the first place because, unlike Rhode Island, these states were unable to prepare their schools for test administration, ease stakeholder concerns, and sell the tests to the public — not because there is something fundamentally flawed with the Common Core standards themselves.

The key points from this state-by-state analysis of testing policy reveal a great deal about education policy: principally, that education in the United States is a fragmented patchwork of 50 different, uncoordinated state systems. Successful implementation of potentially controversial policies requires comprehensive, patient efforts to prepare and engage many different stakeholders. For the sake of the millions of public school students across the country, it is essential that professionals in education understand the potential roadblocks to education reform so that they may better navigate the implementation of future reforms. Perhaps it is for the best that states are holding off on the tests, because evidently policymakers — not students — still have some lessons to learn.   

Art by Julie Benbassat