After spending last week in Washington, D.C., I was struck by how nervous folks in education circles are about whether states will stick with the Common Core state standards once the Common Core assessments arrive in the 2014-15 school year.

The behind-the-scenes buzz on Common Core touched on everything from how different the assessments really will be from what some states have today to whether Common Core will doom testing and the accountability movement more generally because of the length of the assessments to whether governors will stick with Common Core once the first year of assessment results come out and people see how students perform poorly on them.

I’m a proponent of states adopting Common Core state standards that are fewer, clearer, and higher in part because of the innovation their adoption could seed through the creation of a common market. Having common standards across the country could begin to reward content providers that target the long tail of learners because they would help to aggregate demand across the country, as opposed to what happens today where those providers that tailor their offerings to different and idiosyncratic state standards, for example, are rewarded.

What has struck me though is how after having agreed upon the standards, we seem to be going about the work of implementing the assessments for them backwards. I’m certainly no expert in this and this is genuinely complicated, but a story from Steve Spear’s research, as recounted in his book Chasing the Rabbit and which we wrote about in Disrupting Class, frames the point and my ultimate question.

While a doctoral student, Steve took temporary jobs working first on an assembly line at one of the Detroit Big Three plants and then at Toyota at the passenger-side front seat installation point.

In Detroit, the worker doing the training essentially told Steve, “The cars come down this line every 58 seconds, so that’s how long you have to install this seat. Now I’m going to show you how to do it. First, you do this. Then do that, then click this in here just like this, then tighten this, then do that,” and so on, until the seat was completely installed. “Do you get how to do it, Steve?”

Steve thought he could do each of those things in the allotted time. When the next car arrived, he picked up the seat and did each of the preparatory steps. But when he tried to install it in the car, it wouldn’t fit. For the entire 58 seconds he tried to complete the installation but couldn’t. His trainer stopped the assembly line to fix the problem. He again showed Steve how to do it. When the next car arrived, Steve tried again but didn’t get it right. In an entire hour, he installed only four seats correctly.

One reason why it historically was so important to test every product when it came off the end of a production line like the Detroit Big Three’s was that there were typically hundreds of steps involved in making a product, and the company could not be sure that each step had been done correctly. In business, we call that end-of-the-line activity “inspection.” In education, we call it “summative assessment.”

When Steve went to work at the same station in Toyota’s plant, he had a completely different experience. First, he went to a training station where he was told, “These are the seven steps required to install this seat successfully. You don’t have the privilege of learning step 2 until you’ve demonstrated mastery of step 1. If you master step 1 in a minute, you can begin learning step 2 a minute from now. If step 1 takes you an hour, then you can learn step 2 in an hour. And if it takes you a day, then you can learn step 2 tomorrow. It makes no sense for us to teach you subsequent steps if you can’t do the prior ones correctly.”

Testing and assessment were still vital, but they were an integral part of the process of instruction. As a result, when he took his spot on Toyota’s production line, Steve was able to do his part right the first time and every time. Toyota had built into its process a mechanism to verify immediately that each step had been done correctly so that no time or money would be wasted fixing a defective product. As a result, it did not have to test its products when they came to the end of the production process.

That’s quite a contrast between the two methods for training Steve Spear. At the Detroit Big Three plant, the time was fixed, but the result of training was variable and unpredictable. The “exam”— installing the seat—came at the end of Steve’s training.

At Toyota, the training time was variable. But assessment was interdependently woven into content delivery, and the result was fixed; every person who went through the training could predictably do what he had been taught to do.

The Detroit example represents how America’s factory-model public schools operate. They were in fact modeled upon factories built during the industrial revolution. The Toyota example illustrates more how a competency-based learning system would work. As I’ve written numerous times, this is how our education system should operate. Many psychometricians say that assessments can either drive instruction or be used for accountability but not both; the Toyota experience suggests otherwise if the assessments are implemented in a competency-based learning system in which time is variable and learning is fixed.

Consider now how we are implementing the Common Core assessments: summative assessments to measure what percentage of students failed. In essence, we are using them as an autopsy. This approach is, of course, an outgrowth of our factory-model system, which requires this sort of assessment; it is not an indictment against the assessment consortia per se. It is also arguably enshrined in federal law, as the Elementary Secondary Education Act requires that states implement yearly assessments, for example. But with the Detroit-Toyota story as background, let’s think about the three specific worries mentioned earlier: whether the new tests will be truly different; whether they will doom the accountability movement because of their length; and whether the states will stick with them after the first year of results. Would competency-based learning help to alleviate each of these concerns?

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia’s announcement that it is scaling back the performance items on its test adds fuel to the fire on the first concern, but at the same time David Coleman, a key thought leader behind the Common Core, and others on a panel at former Governor Jeb Bush’s National Summit on Education Reform went to great lengths to assure folks that the assessments truly would be different.

Of course, if there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when they were ready to demonstrate mastery on specific competencies, we would see a different picture develop with assessments that left no doubt that they were different. Perhaps there could be short assessments to verify basic objective mastery around a particular concept followed by rich capstone-like projects that could measure several competencies and be reviewed on an on-demand basis by an outside party, similar in some respects to how Western Governors University manages its assessments, for example (and yes, Western Governors’ assessments are designed by psychometricians).

The assessments could also presumably be more bite-sized and not interrupt learning in school for several days. As Education Week reported, “A key push in the latest redesign was to ensure that the test yields enough detailed information to enable reports on student performance in specific areas of math and English/language arts.” That’s in part because the assessments have to form an approximate measure of an entire year of curriculum. The summative test therefore has to be a certain length so that it can collect such statistically valid information. Smarter Balanced’s assessment, for example, will be roughly 6.5 to 8 hours long.

What’s most stunning about this test length is that this was a decrease in time from the length the test was supposed to be, according to this announcement. I don’t know if this tone-deaf length will doom the accountability movement more generally, as some worried in private in Washington, D.C., but I will also understand the complaints of parents if this goes forward.

As to the last question over whether governors will stick with Common Core after the first year of assessment results, we don’t really know. Many are speculating that on the heels of students’ and schools’ disastrous results on the assessments, states will simply “lower the cut scores” that determine proficiency, thereby masking the actual results and avoiding the political heat. That would hardly align to Common Core’s mantra of fewer, clearer, and higher, however. Others speculate that governors will just walk rather than deal with the continued expense and political headaches.

If we were instead using assessments in a competency-based learning system, however, then the equation would change. The learning objectives and assessments would be far more transparent to students and their parents, and they would understand why they had not passed a certain concept, as they could receive immediate feedback to inform what they would learn next—and understand the importance of true mastery. In many cases, students could move back down to an earlier concept from a previous “grade” that they might not have mastered if that made the most sense for them to move ahead ultimately and realize success, thereby avoiding the “Swiss Cheese” problem that is too prevalent in education today and that competency-based learning, such as that used in Toyota’s training, solves.

For those worried about accountability (and count me in that group), this would actually allow for a far more accountable and rigorous system, as we could have near real-time data about where each student was in her learning (and with much more visibility into where each student actually was because we would be testing students based on their actual level, not an assumed one based on their age) and see the progress and growth that a school was achieving with its population with a bottoms-up approach rather than today’s clunky top-down one.

We wouldn’t need to play all the games that we do today with summative assessments where we are constantly making difficult tradeoffs and relying on various statistical machinations to create valid and reliable instruments. Instead, the focus would be on true mastery, not “good enough” (to see why that’s a valid concern, check out Sal Khan’s chapter on testing in his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined).

To the credit of David Coleman and Dr. William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University and another of the key thought leaders behind the Common Core, at Bush’s summit they spoke about how Common Core could unleash competency-based learning. Indeed, Common Core and competency-based learning should be a natural fit, as the former creates learning maps for students to master that can shift the emphasis from time to mastery of deeper learning. Coleman and Schmidt also properly warned about the possibility that competency-based learning might mean students just zipping past concepts without truly mastering them (Tom Vander Ark has written about this concern more here).

At the same time, one of the things that has concerned me most about the Common Core is its language around age-based grades that imply the same factory model we’ve always had. At Bush’s summit, prior to someone asking about competency-based learning, Schmidt reinforced this worry when he in essence said that students should be working on the same things on the same day at the same age, and that it makes no sense for it to be otherwise because it’s not equitable.

I’m all for all students having an equal opportunity to be exposed to and master the same foundational concepts, as opposed to the way today’s system works (and by the way, the adoption of digital learning would go a long way in helping solve this), but at the same time, this mindset of age-based grades is dangerous and a terrible relic of today’s factory-model system that is anything but equitable. It helps keep a deeply flawed and inequitable system locked in place, which is why a couple hundred education leaders joined me in the summer of 2011 to encourage the development of a different view of assessments entirely (you can read the open letter here). What’s more, sticking to age-based grade bands could be Common Core’s undoing.

Common Core creates a huge opportunity for innovation and personalization and the implementation of a competency-based learning system. It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t waste. With the way things are moving now on the assessment front, however, there are real concerns that states will walk away from it en masse. Even if they don’t, there are real concerns that the assessments that will be put in place will stunt innovation and educational transformation, not encourage it. If we called a timeout though and shifted our mindset and our education system to a competency-based learning one—one in which new assessments could help drive the shift—might we see a different picture develop? Wouldn’t we worry less about states walking away from the Common Core in that picture?


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.