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Gates To States: No Stakes Yet For Core Tests

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was instrumental in the development and adoption of the Core standards.
Nati Harnik
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was instrumental in the development and adoption of the Core standards.

Politicians, parents and plenty of anxious teachers have long called for a free pass on next year's tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

It's not that they want out of them entirely (though some do). Most simply want to be sure teachers and students aren't judged on scores from this first generation of Core tests. And now, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation agrees:

"Assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years," writes Vicki Phillips, director of Education at the Gates Foundation.

In a statement issued today, Phillips makes clear she believes the tests are important, calling them "an indispensable part of the Common Core." But she acknowledges that the tests are still young and in "a practice run."

A moratorium on stakes, Phillips writes, would give teachers "the time, tools and support they need to teach the new standards, and students have a chance to get used to the new tests. This can ensure that students receive the high-quality instruction that will get them ready for life — and can track their growth as they go."

Why does it matter what the Gates Foundation says about Core tests? Because, as The Washington Post reminded us this past Sunday, the huge foundation was instrumental in the development and adoption of the Core standards.

Today's news comes not long after South Carolina and Oklahoma both officially repealed the Core, bringing the current number of states implementing the standards to 42 (from a high of 45).

And several states that have stood by the Core have nevertheless backed away from the two consortia that are now developing aligned tests. According to Education Week, though some 37 states belong to one of the two consortia, far fewer will actually be using those tests.

All of this points to the big reason Core implementation has varied so muchand why it's too early to tell what stakes next year's Common Core tests will have: these decisions are made largely at the state level. As Phillips points out, some states (Kentucky, Maryland, Colorado) have already assured teachers: you won't be judged on next year's tests.

There's also a wild card here. Most states have tied these test scores to teacher accountability because of an agreement they struck with the U.S. Department of Education. They're required to do it. So stripping next year's Core tests of their stakes will require some negotiating.

We'll wait and see if today's Gates announcement pushes more states into free pass territory.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.