Transcript: School Bell Rings for Common Core

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Interview with T.J. Bliss

For podcast release Monday, September 2, 2013

KENNEALLY: It’s back to school for students and teachers. Seating assignments and lesson plans aren’t all that’s new. Dramatic changes are coming to texts and tests. For the classroom of tomorrow, publishers need to get ready today.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book.

Beginning in 2014, 43 million K-to-12 public school students in 46 states will study to the Common Core State Standards. The new, some say revolutionary, approach to learning has fueled a debate among teachers, administrators and parents.

Joining me to discuss the issues involved ahead of this coming week’s Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium conference meeting at the UCLA campus is TJ Bliss, Director of Assessment and Accountability for the Idaho Department of Education, who also serves as state lead for Idaho to the SBAC consortium. Welcome to Beyond the Book, TJ.

BLISS: Hi, Chris. Thank you for inviting me on the show.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re delighted to have you help our audience understand the issues that are associated with Common Core. And we can tell people that TJ has a Ph.D. in educational inquiry, measurement and evaluation from the McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University. His dissertation work resulted in a measurement model of student perceptions on the quality of digital textbooks, especially open digital textbooks.

And in all of his work in K-to-12 assessment and accountability, TJ is intensely interested in increasing access to education for all. And so, TJ, the Common Core is a phrase I think we’re all going to be hearing a good deal more about. But something like two-thirds of the country has not heard the phrase before. So help our audience understand better what the issues are. Give us an abbreviated history of Common Core.

BLISS: Sure. Well, the history of Common Core really goes back to about 2001, when President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to set standards in math and language arts. And prior to that, some states had standards for guidance to teachers – what students should know and be able to do. So that really kicked off the standards movement.

But every state chose their own standards. They wrote their own standards. They adopted their own standards. And it wasn’t until about 2007 that several commissioners of education, or what are known as chief state school officers, met to discuss the possibility of developing common standards across as many states as were willing to venture into that effort.

And several states quickly saw the value in that. In April of 2009, the chiefs, as well as the governors, of 45 states met in Chicago at the O’Hare Hilton, which is kind of an interesting place to meet, to formalize the process for developing common standards in mathematics and English language arts.

It was always done through a state-led process. You will hear, I’m sure, as we hear more about the Common Core, many people try to say that it was not a state-led process. But it was always led by those who were elected or appointed at the state level to lead the education effort, as well as the governors.

And in the next month, interested states – and there were many – more than 40 – signed a memorandum of agreement to work together through this state-led process. And they chose very explicitly – kind of anticipating what would happen if they didn’t make this as explicit as possible – to not involve the federal government in any way in setting these standards.

KENNEALLY: Yeah. TJ, I wonder if we could sort of – you know, without going too far into the political issues – because, as with so much of the discussion in this country around education, politics enter into it – but that emphasis on state-led is important, not just because a lot of people don’t like the federal government, right?

BLISS: Well, it comes down to really it’s a constitutional issue. Right? So in the Con – well, I don’t – I want to speak so far as to say that there’s anything about education even in the Constitution. But we understand – and most states accept the fact – that education is a state prerogative.

And though the federal government has become more and more involved in terms of funding, they still only fund about 7% of the education effort in the United States. States have absolute control over their education systems. So it was important for states to maintain the autonomy when it came to accepting these standards. It’s always a state choice.

And states can choose to back out of these standards if they’ve adopted them, adopt new standards, write their own standards – though several, several people in education, from the chiefs to the teachers to the administrators, felt very strongly that it was very difficult with the increasing mobility of students across state lines – as well as have students going off to college in various places around the country – that there be at least some minimum standard that students meet when it comes to at least mathematics and language arts –


BLISS: – so that’s sort of where the importance of making it a state-led effort and not having it be led from the top, but be led from the states working in agreement and in connection with one another.

KENNEALLY: Right. And TJ Bliss, you’re Director of Assessment and Accountability of the Idaho Department of Education, as we said, and working with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. And I wonder if you can just share with us what it’s like to work then with your peers in various other states around the country. I mean this notion of developing the Common Core from that level is unprecedented, and it must be a great opportunity to share with others who have similar positions across the country your experiences as an educator.

BLISS: You know, Chris, it really is. I think it’s interesting – just a point of clarification here – so the standards themselves I wasn’t involved in developing. There were others in Idaho and the rest of the states that did eventually adopt them that were involved in that.

But along with that 2001 federal law – No Child Left Behind – along with the mandate for standards, there was also a mandate that states administer an end-of-year test to students in grades three through eight and one time in high school in both math and language arts. And so for the past 12 years, every state has been giving these tests. And people are probably more familiar with those if they have kids in school, because it happens every year.

And one of the issues with that is every state – because every state had their own standards, every state also had their own test and the – because the test has to be aligned to the standards.

So with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by 45 states and territories, there became an opportunity – a fantastic opportunity – for states to pool their resources to collaborate together to develop a test that is more authentic to how students learn, and is in line with the new standards, which are more rigorous than most state standards were before.

So the opportunities that we have had to collaborate with other states have been fantastic. I say it actually a number of times since I’ve been in this position – how wonderful it is to meet frequently and often face to face with people in my position – other directors of assessment in the other 26 states that are part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

In fact, just yesterday, I was in Seattle with the state lead from Hawaii, and we were talking about issues – not just assessment-related, but other things that were going on as well.

And so I think it is an unprecedented event in the history of testing itself that 26 states have come together to develop a single test that – it’s kind of like trading in your old jalopy for a brand new Cadillac, but for many states for much less money, because the economies of scale are at play here, where we can develop a much better test for a lot less because there are so many more students involved. And it’s just a very, very exciting time in the world of testing.

I think it’s important to note, in order to make these tests more fair and more valid and to make them – to allow students to show what they know and are able to do in real ways. I mean, Chris, we in Idaho have been giving a writing test in a multiple-choice format. And your listeners can think about the illogical nature of that. It’s incredible that that’s what we’ve had to do, because it costs so much to create and administer these kinds of tests.

The new Smarter Balanced Assessment will actually allow students to write, and we can look at how they write. (laughter). And that’s going to be a big step forward for Idaho and many other states that are in our situation.

KENNEALLY: Well, if the promise is realized, it certainly sounds like a good deal for everybody, because obviously educating the future is as important to us as having the right resources and peace in the world. So I think it’s a tremendous opportunity. Where does publishing come into all of this? Because clearly students are going to be learning from various kinds of texts, whether it’s published textbooks or fiction, nonfiction and so forth.

And I would imagine that, if we’re going to be changing the testing, we are also going to be changing some of the texts as well. So there’re some opportunities and some challenges here for content publishers in this new Common Core era. Talk about that from your experience there at Idaho.

BLISS: Sure. And I agree completely, Chris, that there are several excellent opportunities for publishers – and also some very interesting, if not daunting, challenges as well.

In the past, publishers have had to cater to 50 different sets of standards. So I don’t know if you have children in school, but I remember I graduated in the year 2000, and even then those standards weren’t as explicit. The publishers were paying attention to the fact that every state – they needed to cover the ground of every state, basically.

And so you would get a chemistry book or a biology book that was 1500 pages. And I remember sitting in my biology class, and the instructor – the teacher the first day of class saying here are the chapters that we are not going to cover in this very large, very expensive textbook – which, by the way, you can’t take home, which, by the way, you can’t write in, and which, by the way, if you destroy, you’ll have to pay for. (laughter).

And so publishers have had to continue to produce that kind of content. And often they pay special attention to some of the larger states, like Texas and California, which have a big share of the market in terms of deciding perhaps how to outline the book and follow – to pick somebody’s – if you’re going to pick somebody’s standards or outlines to follow, you’re probably going to pick the biggest. And so small states like Idaho and those that just don’t have the share of the market have basically had to deal with the content that has been provided that has been developed primarily for Texas and California.

And in the era of the Common Core standards, some of this can be streamlined, meaning publishers have the opportunity to adjust their content to these new standards. In fact they’re going to have to or states are just not going to purchase that material because they’re not going to be able to have it align with the new standards.

KENNEALLY: Right. And TJ, in that example you used of the biology textbook that’s 1500 pages long – is that textbook now going to be out of date and not usable any longer? Are we going to be replacing every textbook in every classroom around the country? What’s going to happen with that?

BLISS: Yeah. There’s a lot of conversation about this. And you have those who see that as a great opportunity and those that see that as a great challenge or maybe even an economic negative. But, yeah, I think that changes need to happen. It’s not going to be enough for publishers just to put a sticker on the front of their textbook and say, well, this is aligned to the Common Core, because it has all the content of the Common Core. The Common Core is more than just about content. It’s about how content is organized and what students are actually asked to do with that content.

And it doesn’t prescribe – I think it’s very important for listeners to understand the difference between curriculum and content. Curriculum is the what – for instance, which novel are students going to read, what particular textbook or subject matter are they going to cover in – especially in literature. There’s a lot more flexibility there, because math is – math is math.

But the difference between standards and curriculum needs to be very clear in people’s minds. Standards basically outline what students should know and be able to do, but not how they get there. So you can know how to write an expository essay, and you can learn that using all sorts of different kinds of content.

And so there is a lot of flexibility and a lot of opportunity for publishers to look at here in terms of moving their content to be in line with the Common Core. But they really have to dig down and understand how these standards are different from what they’ve been dealing with in the past, because they are very, very different when it comes to how content is presented.

And what we’ve seen a lot of – when I speak to our math coordinator here in Idaho – is that she has not found a math textbook yet that she feels comfortable having her teachers use, except for one. And that is a math textbook that was actually written by math teachers in the state of Utah and which is openly licensed and we can use here in Idaho for almost free.

But there aren’t a lot of those kinds of resources being developed. And I think that the publishers – I’m sure they’re working on this issue – and they’re hearing this, hopefully – but it’s really a really interesting time, I think, for the world of publishing. And –

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed, it certainly is. And you mentioned mathematics. But language arts is a particular challenge, as I understand it, because there really is going to be a need for entirely new content, and that will be beyond simply The Great Gatsby or A Farewell to Arms. It’ll be about content that’s related to those particular books.

BLISS: Yeah. So one of the moves – one of the shifts in the Common Core is not away from literature and standard literature. Students will still be reading a lot of the same things, if not most of the same things, that you and I read.

But the informational texts that surround that – the ability for students to understand and be able to use and dig deeply and analyze and think critically about the material that we’re reading – even the great literature – the other things that have been written about that is extremely important. It’s important for them to become college and career ready.

Whether they’re going on to college or on to a career, they have to be literate in several ways. And the standards really try to address that literacy components that, quite frankly, has been lacking from many of the state standards – not every state. Massachusetts might claim that the Common Core State Standards are a bit – are, I wouldn’t say, a step backward, but pretty much about where they were before in a lot of ways. But other states, like Idaho – it’s a bit step up for Idaho. It is definitely raising the bar.

KENNEALLY: Well, give us an example. So if we had The Great Gatsby on the reading list for the 10th grade, what other kinds of texts, as an example or two, would be a part of that instruction?

BLISS: One that I can speak to, I know, I read in high school that I know will continue in that is like Fahrenheit 451. But again, the standards don’t prescribe the texts. There’s nothing in the standards that say this is a book you have read and this is a book you can’t read. That would be a nightmare –


BLISS: – in the – in terms of nobody would accept them in that case. But so the example – I saw an example yesterday of a lesson going on in South Carolina. This is a little vignette on a video. And they were using Fahrenheit 451, and a really interesting method of helping students grasp the concepts in that book of a world without books, right? Several other essays and even some academic papers – at least parts of them – this was a high school literature class – the students were asked to read.

And then the method that they were using to come to understand this was quite intriguing, but I don’t have to get into that right now – just in terms of them interacting with each other, it was quite remarkable to see. I don’t recall ever having that kind of instruction when I was in high school. It was kind of teacher led. And this was really student led – students critiquing students and helping each other come to understand some of the heavy issues in this literature.

KENNEALLY: Well, we are talking on Beyond on the Book today with TJ Bliss, Director of Assessment and Accountability for the Idaho State Department of Education. And he also serves as state lead for Idaho to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

And TJ, I suppose we have to move from the texts to the test, because the whole point here of standards is we need to assess whether or not the students are meeting the standards. And so there will be some Common Core tests, and in particular that’s where the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium comes in. The SBAC will be having a conference later this week at the UCLA campus.

So tell us about the relationship of what you’ve been talking about on the text side of things to the testing itself. So in the Common Core testing era, you know, what are the challenges and what direction are we headed as far as the publishing world’s concerned?

BLISS: Sure. I think you bring up some good issues here, because a lot of the publishers out there are not just publishers of content, they are also publishers of tests. Pearson is heavily involved, for instance, in publishing tests, among others, and have been for quite some time. So these issues are very related.

Also we here in Idaho, especially – and in the other states as well – do our best to not differentiate the standards from the tests, because really they go hand in hand. And without the tests, it would be very difficult to implement the new standards because we would have no idea whether they were having any difference or impact.

The other challenge with the tests are, like I said earlier, increasing the authenticity and the fairness and the equity of these tests, and allowing students the opportunity to really show, in the way that they have been doing it all year long, that they have mastered certain concepts, that they’re able to do certain things, that they can think critically, that they can analyze and use evidence to support their arguments and all those things that we wish everybody would do, really, that often we don’t see enough in our public discourse – and to, in the end, be able to meaningfully contribute to society.

I think that’s the end goal. You hear a lot of – a lot about college and career readiness, but – and that’s important. But the end goal of that is helping students become good citizens, helping them become meaningful contributors to our society because they can think critically, because they can analyze, because they can use evidence – and all sorts of other things that are involved in the standards.

The tests themselves are completely aligned with the Common Core State Standards and try to help students show evidence at different depths of knowledge, from simple understanding down to the ability to evaluate and weigh the evidence and show that through an assessment. And most – like I said earlier – most states have not been able to produce tests like that because it costs so much to do in terms of scoring those tests, you know, grading them, and other things like that.

And the opportunity that we have here, despite some of the challenges that face 26 states to come together and produce a single test – the opportunity is amazing. What the students are going to get out of this and what the teachers are going to get out of this can be quite remarkable.

I want to say something I think that’s really important, because there is kind of a hyper focus on the end-of-year tests. But Smarter Balanced itself is not a test. Smarter Balanced is a whole assessment system. And the end-of-year test is just one part of that system.

For me, the more important part of this are the things that Smarter Balanced are doing to help teachers leverage the power of assessment and evaluation in their classrooms on an everyday basis. Most teachers, in their training in college, don’t even take a single class in how to give an appropriate assessment. And if you’ve ever been in a college class, we all know that most professors don’t know how to do that either very well. And that’s because there’s not opportunity to learn how to do that.

And Smarter Balanced has taken that challenge head on. They want to improve the ability of educators to appropriately and authentically and fairly determine where their kids are on a day-to-day basis – not in a high-stakes way, not meaning give kids grades every day. In fact just the opposite – ask kids to show what they’re knowing – what they know and what they’re able to do, without the pressure of consequence if they haven’t gotten there yet, but for the purpose of teachers being able to change how they’re teaching to help Jimmy with this problem or Susie with that problem.

And it’s not just something that you just do because you’re required to do it. You have – there are important things that teachers need to understand and know themselves in order to do this effectively. And it’s a really, really exciting time because of that component.

KENNEALLY: Right. And TJ Bliss, finally, give us an idea of how far along we are in the development of all this, both on the test side and the text side, and how much work lies ahead, because this is going to be coming effective the – not this school year, but the coming school year, 2014. So how close are we to being done here, to being baked? Or is there still a lot of work ahead?

BLISS: Well, so the implementation of the Common Core State Standards actually started yesterday – or on Tuesday – in Idaho, and in most other states around the nation, as soon as school starts this year. So that’s underway. And that – efforts have been going on for the last three years in most states to prepare educators for these new standards and to be able to teach to them. So that’s now. We’re here.

And the tests themselves – so there’s the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and there’s also another consortium of about 20 states called PARCC – P-A-R-C-C. And I can’t rattle off what that acronym means right now, but your listeners can look it up. So there’re actually two of these major consortia right now working on different tests, both of them aligned to the Common Core but slightly different in their presentation.

And I can speak to the Smarter Balanced Assessment. So this past spring was a pilot test across the 26 states in the consortium. About 700,000 students participated in that test. And it was just an opportunity to test out the system and make sure that things – you know, there weren’t any major issues.

This spring, in the spring of 2014, will be a consortium-wide field test, where – in some states, that means about 20% of the students will participate. In Idaho, 100% of students are going to take part in the field test of this assessment. And the purpose of the field test is to test the questions, make sure that, you know, any bad questions are thrown out, any questions that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing don’t make it through to the final test.

And it’s also to do something very important, and that is to set cut scores – basically to set that point at which a student is determined ready for college and career or not. Sometimes that’s – the word we use is proficiency. So to set those proficiency in the tests – that will happen next summer. And then, like you said, in the school year 2014-2015, the first operational administration of the Smarter Balanced Assessment will happen, where students will be taking it and schools will be held accountable for how students do on that test.

KENNEALLY: Well then, TJ Bliss, I have to tell you – this is obviously a critical issue for everybody in society here in the United States, and not only for the students and the teachers and for their parents, but also for publishing. And we’ll be turning to you, I think, from time to time for some more updates on Common Core. And we want to be ready when that bell rings next fall, 2014.

So TJ Bliss, Director of Assessment and Accountability for the Idaho Department of Education – and who served as state lead for Idaho to the Smart (sic) Balanced Assessment Consortium – thanks so much for joining us today on Beyond the Book.

BLISS: Thank you, Chris. It was a pleasure.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at the Copyright Clearance Center website – Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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