Smarter Balanced is Out, So What’s In?

Last week, the State of Maine officially ended its relationship with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

As so many of us predicted, the test was an expensive, poorly designed, time-consuming experiment that has yet to deliver its meaningless data.

(Am I the only one who wishes we could scream, “We told you so!” at the top of our lungs?)

Federal law, however, says we must administer an annual test, and so the question remains: if not SBAC, then what?

The RFP for the new test has not yet been released, but there are plenty of clues that point to what is on the way – if not this year, then in the very near future.

Let’s take a look.

Back in 2012, a guy named Michael Horn – MBA in business, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, and author of the book “Disrupting Class” – wrote a few things in a Forbes article called “Can Competency-Based Education Save Common Core?” ( that we should pay very close attention to.

First, in reflecting on some time he spent in Washington DC with those in-the-know, he writes:

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.

So back in 2012, those “behind-the-scenes” knew and were talking about the fact the tests wouldn’t be the innovative assessment solutions they claimed to be, and knew and were talking about the fact that students would perform poorly on them.  This was, of course, before the assessments had been field-tested and before cut-scores been determined.

Kinda makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?

Anyway, in the very next breath, Mr. Horn reveals what he’s really worried about here. (Hint: it’s not the kids.)

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.

By “content providers,” of course, he means those who have played a major role in financing Common Core and developing its related products – Pearson, McGraw Hill, Amplify, Microsoft, Apple, etc. – as well as many start-ups eager to get in on the market. And by “reward” he means – well, what else? – profit.

Back in 2012, however, Mr. Horn was already pitching an alternative:

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.

 Now, Mr. Horn is a pretty well-connected guy (see his biography here:, so it’s pretty unlikely that Forbes gave him all this space to just wax philosophical.

And it’s probably no coincidence that only a year earlier, the Gates Foundation began investing heavily in the development of “Proficiency-Based Pathways” (read the fine print and you’ll see that proficiency means the same as competency) alongside Common Core.

It’s also unlikely a coincidence that, through extensive lobbying efforts by organizations funded by Gates and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the State of Maine passed its “proficiency-based diploma” mandate 2012. (See here my previous post for a more thorough explanation of this law and the very shady way it came to be: )

Finally, it probably not a coincidence that in 2011, Michael Horn was a keynote speaker at a conference held by the Northwest Evaluation Association – more commonly known as NWEA – and that through a variety of strategic business partnerships and a couple million dollars from the Walton Family Foundation, NWEA has just unveiled a brand-new “system of assessments” – fully compatible with proficiency/competency-based systems and, much to Mr. Horn’s delight, I’m sure, fully aligned both to Common Core and to a wide variety of “content providers.”

And yes, even Pearson has stepped in, albeit indirectly. A company called Certica, which partners with Pearson and their data collection system, Powerschool, now owns NWEA’s formative assessment question bank.

Now, we don’t know yet for sure if NWEA will be the vendor of our new test, but we’ve got yet another clue that NWEA or something very similar is in the works.

Just a few days ago, our governor vetoed legislation that would have required the DOE to “create a report that compiles and clearly outlines the federal and state laws and judicial decisions relating to the right or options of a student’s parent to excuse the student from a statewide assessment program administered pursuant to this chapter.”

According to Governor LePage: “The proper solution to the issue of “opting out” of statewide assessments is to implement a new testing system that eliminates the problematic issues involved while still complying with federal law.”

So, what might a “new testing system” offered by NWEA or a potential competitor look like?

First, take a moment to step into the shoes of a businessman.  For Horn, and those who think like him, education is a perpetual process of mastering discrete skills in a specified sequence.

In his article in Forbes, Horn compares education to learning to install a seat in a car. (Which, by the way, is more than a little ironic because in other pieces he discusses our need to move away from our “factory model” of educating kids.) In his article, Horn talks about a guy name Steve who discovers that in order to successfully install a seat, he must learn how to learn how to do step one before he moves on to step two.

In the context of a classroom, this might mean learning how to add before moving on to learning to subtract, or multiply one digit numbers before moving on to two digits. So, the idea is not much different from what we do now in subjects like math – the only difference is that rather than proving their “mastery” on one end-of-year exam, the assessments would be part of an ongoing – you guessed it – system.

Now, if you are thinking that this grossly oversimplifies what learning and education are really about – that mastering discrete skills is but one part something much more abstract and meaningful than simply proving, endlessly, that one can do pre-specified things – well, you and I are in the same boat.

You may also be wondering how this concept would possibly work. How will students be able to prove “mastery” of a concept at any time, regardless of what is happening the rest of the classroom? How will the teacher possibly manage such a system?

Not to worry! Horn and his many content-provider friends have already developed Common Core aligned digital and online learning solutions for us, with plenty of help, of course, from investments of the Gates Foundation. See here for a look at the many business alliances NWEA has formed with companies promising to offer “student-centered” (re: digital) learning solutions, where students can learn how to do things through the computer and then take tests whenever they are ready do the next thing in the sequence.

Never mind that pediatricians recommend limiting children’s screen time. Never mind that there is no research to show that learning on digital devices is  beneficial for children. Never mind those pesky things like history and literature that don’t lend themselves to being measured.  And never mind those self-centered people called teachers who bore our kids to tears!

This is the future! It’s inevitable!

And boy we are in big trouble.

So Long, SBAC!

Yesterday, Maine officially pulled out of the Smarter Balanced Consortium, putting a very welcome exclamation point on what will surely go down in history as a very strange year for public education.

SBAC, you will not be missed – but rest assured that we will not forget you.

We will not forget how many hours you took from children so that they could take part in your failed testing experiment.

We will not forget the way you set our children up to fail – confusing them with strange, multi-part directions that even adults could not decipher; giving them reading passages written for students well beyond their grade level; requiring them to manipulate complicated computer interfaces to answer your questions…

We will not forget how hard some parents had to fight to protect their children from your nonsense.

We will not forget the way you hid your profit-seeking makers behind non-profit organizations.

We will not forget how very expensive you were.

We will not forget how you intimidated teachers by linking your strange self to our future evaluations.

We will not forget how you branded yourself with friendly words and phrases only to prove that you were the opposite of what you claimed to be.


We also will not forget the way you helped band so many of us together across the country in a fight for what is right for our kids.

We will not forget the way you taught so many of us that we need to be more skeptical of what enters our schools in the name of reform – that we need to do more research, to show up to more meetings, to speak up, to question,

We will not forget that you helped wake many of us up to the very worrisome state of education reform in our country.

For that, we thank you, and now bid you a very welcome farewell.

(But be warned, SBAC – we are already on the lookout for your friends and family, and we now know how you like to disguise yourselves!)