What Might Have Been

Spring 2023!

For eight years, we have awaited patiently, more or less, its arrival.

This was the year that we would finally learn whether the kids whom we labelled as “on track to college-and-career readiness” year after year would actually be classified as college-and-career ready when it came time to take that final test.

Those cherubs who sat as third graders in the spring of 2015 for the first administration of the next generation, consortium-based, college-and-career readiness state assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards are now angsty and anxious eleventh graders who may or may not be taking the ACT or SAT this spring. They’ve certainly been through a lot. More than we ever could have imagined back then.

Large-scale standardized testing, in general, and state testing, in particular, have certainly been through a lot, too, since 2015. More than we ever could have imagined back then.

It wasn’t all just waiting around, of course.

Some people, like my former colleague Damian Betebenner, have tried to anticipate what it might take for students to stay on track by stitching together the year-to-year results that were available (3rd grade to 4thgrade, 4th grade to 5th grade, …, up to high school).

And let’s not forget about those bold and brash Bayesians, attempting to peddle their probability potion without any prior data at all. You gotta love their enthusiasm.

But those efforts were always going to be a mere proxy for the real data, the longitudinal data we would have in Spring 2023 from kids who had been instructed on and assessed against college-and-career ready standards from the third through eleventh grade.

Oh, What a Data Set it Was Going to Be

When state tests were administered in Spring 2015, third graders in 44 states took either the PARCC or Smarter Balanced test. It was as close to a national test as we were going to get.

One consortium had five achievement levels and the other only four, but they were both assessing the Common Core State Standards. Surely, they would come to a consensus on the meaning of college-and-career ready and the knowledge and skills needed to be classified as “on track” at each grade level. Both consortia were really big on reaching consensus. We had faith in Joe, Tony, Laura, and Jeff.

But just in case, psychometricians and statisticians of every ilk stood ready to build concordance tables.

What could go wrong?

A Foundation Built on Sand

From the beginning, we all knew that it was going to be difficult to hold 44 states and two fledgling assessment programs together for eight years. But I don’t know that any of us anticipated how quickly things would fall apart. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house of cards, and our dreams of a national 8-year longitudinal data set fell with a great crash.

We lost some data when several states opted out of administering their consortium’s high school assessment, choosing to go with the ACT or David Coleman’s new and improved SAT instead. We would have “on track” data from grades 3 through 8 but would be missing the high school data point, that final data point that would tell us whether the kids were actually on track. Like beginning a 1,000-piece puzzle knowing that you had only 999 pieces. Validation is hard.

We lost more data when PARCC began to fracture from the top down and Smarter Balanced splinter from the bottom up as states decided to go their own way.

Early data from some of those ACT/SAT states showed us that there might be a disconnect between on track and college-and-career-ready.  Many more high school students were meeting the admissions tests’ “college-ready benchmarks” than were being classified as on track through eighth grade.

A mid-course correction might be needed, but we would cross that bridge a little further down the road when we had more data.

Soon, however, PARCC was no more.

Multiple states have had several assessment programs and achievement standards since 2015. Massachusetts, always a pioneer, administered two different assessments simultaneously for a few years.

Smarter Balanced survived by adopting a bend, but don’t break, philosophy. An approach that saw me for the second time in a decade involved in a major project devoted to evaluating, exploring and defining comparability

As long as Smarter Balanced survived, we still had hope.

Smarter Balanced = California = A very large, diverse, data source.

California Dreamin’

Like so many before us, we pinned our hopes and dreams on California. Our golden egg rested in the California basket. There were other Smarter Balanced states, to be sure, but most had fewer kids than the LAUSD. As California goes, so goes Smarter Balanced.

Then came the pandemic.

Then came California’s assault on standardized testing.

Then California schools stayed closed month after month after month.

All mixed in with wildfires, floods, atmospheric rivers,  and blizzard warnings in Southern California.

It’s as if somebody up there doesn’t want us to answer this question.

Nevertheless, they persisted!

Despite it all, there are eleventh grade students who have participated in the same assessment program since 2015 (with the exception of 2020).

Among them, you will find an eleventh-grade student headed toward that CCR finish line who has been told at the end of each grade level since third grade that they were on track to college-and-career readiness.


And sometime later this year, somebody will track down those students’ scores and conduct a scaled-down version of the longitudinal analyses we had planned so long ago. It might be a doctoral student, but probably one specializing in policy, not measurement. Or maybe a state department assessment specialist who has delayed her retirement for 3 years just to be able to conduct this analysis. It could be someone commissioned by Smarter Balanced. The analyses may win Sean, Andrew, et al. another award from a grateful NCME.

But it won’t be the same. It can’t be the same.

And I don’t think that should make us sad because here’s the thing.

It was never going to play out as we hoped in Spring 2015.

The Only Constant in Life is Change” – Heraclitus
(and baseball)

At its very core, education is about change.

Education reform is about change.

Innovation is most definitely about change.

Experimentation. Evaluation. Change.

Societies change. Standards change. Times change.

Adapt or Die. Change or Die. Grow or Die.

At the start of my career, I was involved in education reform in Kentucky. Goals were set across 10 biennia, or 20 years.

Ten years later, NCLB came along with its goal of 100% of students Proficient in Reading and Mathematics in 12 years.

When it came time to set long-term goals for ESSA, nearly half the states defined long term as 5-7 years in the future, at least one as little as 3 years.

Accepting for the sake of argument that it is a good idea to classify third-grade students as on track to college-and-career-readiness (and believe me, there are very big problems with that idea from any number of perspectives), everyone has to understand that college-and-career-readiness is a moving target.

College-and-career-ready won’t mean the same thing in 2031 when current third graders are in the eleventh grade, just as it doesn’t mean the same thing in 2023 as it did in 2015 when we began testing or in 2010 when the Common Core State Standards were adopted by states across the country.

For all I know, most current third graders will already be several years into a dual-enrollment or career pathway program by the end of the eleventh grade.

What lies ahead for the third graders taking state tests in Spring 2023 is as clear as the fog-covered track in the photo at the top of this post.

It’s a dilemma for those of us involved in educational measurement and large-scale assessment who have become so dependent upon and invested in things staying the same. A dilemma that I will address in upcoming posts.

As I wrote in a previous post, education reform is a song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on my friend.

For our part, we plan, we set standards, we teach, we assess, we evaluate, and we repeat.

Yes, people plan and God laughs, but alas, we are not gods.

Header image by Tumisu from Pixabay
Additional image by Roshan Rajopadhyaya from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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