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Core sampling

    Fifth-grade teacher Amy Lawson leads her students in a language-arts lesson at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del. The school has begun implementing the new national Common Core standards.

WASHINGTON » What’s on the new Common Core-based exams? More than 4 million kids in U.S. schools soon will have a clue.

Field testing begins this coming week in 36 states, including Hawaii, and the District of Columbia on assessments developed by two different groups of states. Participating students will be asked to sit for hours in front of a computer or use a No. 2 pencil to answer questions.

But there’s no need for kids to worry. The scores won’t count — this time. The actual exam-testing won’t be used for another year.

The Common Core standards spell out what math and English skills students should have at each grade, and are designed to develop more critical-thinking skills than traditional school work. They were first pushed by governors concerned about the large number of high school graduates needing remedial college help and lacking basic skills. Most states have adopted them.

The field tests, to be conducted until June, are a big step forward in the push to more fully integrate the new academic standards into the school environment. They will give education officials a chance to judge things such as the quality of each test question and the technical capabilities of schools to administer the tests, which are computer-based but also will be available on paper.

But they also come as the standards face political push-back in many states.

Indiana lawmakers, for example, last year paused implementation of the standards and a measure ending the state’s participation is at the governor’s desk. House lawmakers in Tennessee passed legislation that would delay implementation — and testing — under Common Core for two years, but that proposal hasn’t been taken up in the Senate.

Common Core supporters hope the field tests provide an opportunity to highlight the best of Common Core.

"There’s been a lot of talk and a lot of planning and it’s actually happening, which I think generates some excitement and some reality, if you will, for the fact that this is moving ahead," said Jeffrey Nellhaus, director of research, policy and design with the consortium Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Joe Willhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — with which Hawaii is affiliated — said there will be snags, and that’s in part due to the nature of what a field test is: a test run and an opportunity to see what works and doesn’t. Already, out of concern there would be technical problems, Smarter Balanced delayed by a week to this week the start of its field tests.

"We have a saying in Smarter Balanced that if nothing goes wrong in the field test, then actually we have failed," Willhoft said.

While opposition to the standards has been multidimensional, some critics take issue with the tests and how the results will be used because the tests are designed to replace the annual assessments given in states.

Also complicating matters are the new teacher evaluation systems rolling out in many states that rely, in part, on student performance on annual exams. Questions have been raised about when or if the Common Core-based assessments should count on these evaluations.

Supporters are warning that scores on the new assessments will drop compared with the old tests, but they say they will be a more accurate measurement of student knowledge.



» Smarter Balanced:

Kimberly Hefling, Associated Press

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