Was SBAC Meant to Flop?

Okay, I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist, but hear me out.

First, take one more look at that Michael Horn quote from a 2012 issue of Forbes which I’ve referenced in earlier blog posts:

“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.”

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that people “behind-the-scenes” knew well ahead of time that the new tests would be problematic?  Far enough ahead of time that you’d think they would have been able to make adjustments so that they weren’t quite so long, or quite so developmentally inappropriate?

Now, take another look at his alternative, while keeping in mind that this just so happens to match an idea that the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation began pouring millions of dollars into that same year:

“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.”

And now, notice that this is exactly what Senator Angus King and five other senators suggested in a recent letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee:

“Promote Next Generation Assessments: Many states are experimenting with new assessment systems that are tied to competency-based learning models. These tests are rigorous and designed to provide timely information to students, educators, and parents about the individual needs of learners. We encourage the Committee to provide a more clearly-defined and timely application process for states to pilot dynamic assessment systems.”


This spring, Senator King was busy talking with teachers in Maine about their concerns with the current testing system. I was encouraged, at the time, that he wanted to know what teachers thought, and even sent him a letter of my own.

But ….  something now tells me that he and his fellow senators didn’t just happen to come up with the same competency-based assessment system idea that Horn was talking about back in 2012.  In fact, here is what King said after his visit to Maine schools this spring:

“Just yesterday I visited several schools in the state – including Portland’s Casco Bay High School and Freeport Middle School. Both schools are leaders in Maine’s transition to a student-centered, proficiency-based learning model…. To fully realize the potential of this new education model, Maine and other states will need flexibility from the federal government – particularly in relation to federal testing requirements. This is why I hope to work with you to provide states like Maine with relief from federally-mandated annual summative assessments, provided these states can demonstrate – through a clearly-defined, timely process – that they have developed robust state and local assessments aligned to similarly high standards.


So, Senator King came to Maine in the midst of the testing brouhaha to sit down with teachers and “listen” to their concerns, but then immediately began pushing a plan that has clearly been in the works since at least 2012?

Maybe SBAC wasn’t meant to flop, but I’m quite sure that there are many “behind-the-scenes” who are happy that it did! Make way for “Next Generation Assessments”!

As for me?  A real-life teacher, that works in a real public school, with real children?

You can read my earlier posts to get a sense of how I feel about this new “next generation” testing plan.  Or check out this quote below, written in The Washington Post in 1977, which pretty clearly sums up what competency/proficiency-based education is really all about:

“The materials will be standardized, the lessons will be standardized,” Guines said. “We’re taking the play out. We’re taking the guesswork out. We’re putting in a precise predicted treatment that leads to a predicted response.”

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, is to break down complicated learning into a sequence of clear simple skills that virtually everyone can master, although at different rates of speed.

“If you can train a pigeon to fly up there and press a button and set off a bomb,” Guines remarked, “why can’t you teach human beings to behave in an effective and rational way? We know we can modify human behavior. We’re not scared of that. This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.”


Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

2 thoughts on “Was SBAC Meant to Flop?”

  1. The Common Core was written in such a rush that it is a mess from the point of view of “competency-based education,” which, insofar as it works at all, would be highly dependent on having an extremely carefully crafted and refined set of competencies. The Common Core had so much momentum initially that everybody who wanted to be any kind of educational consultant, service-provider, etc., had to swallow their concerns and get on board 100%. The more serious people involved in the competency/proficiency wing you’re concerned about had to know they were screwed by the development of CC, and frankly they still are, insofar as — at least in ELA, my area of expertise — it is probably impossible to do a competency-based system that is even coherent, let alone pedagogically successful.

    Just as a simple example of what I’m talking about, reading standard 1 is obviously two standards mashed together for no reason. This kind of thing is a big problem if you’re really trying to build a learning system around the standards.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: