Will the new Common Core assessments serve as effective learning tools? Or will they exacerbate the "teaching to the test" anxiety that permeates many classrooms?
I recently spoke with Jacqueline E. King, Ph.D., the Director of Higher Education Collaboration at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two major consortia creating Common Core-aligned assessments. The other is PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).
King says that developments in research and technology are leading to a more "engaging" testing experience for students, allowing teachers and administrators to more accurately gauge students' skills. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Q: How many states have signed on to the Smarter Balanced assessments?
A: In the 2014-15 school year, 17 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands will be using our assessments. Most people focus on the end-of-year assessments, but we offer tools for use throughout the year: formative, interim, and summative.
In the formative area, we provide an online library with a juried collection of resources—everything from sample instructional strategies to professional development. About 1,500 teachers across the country select and evaluate the materials.
The library also has a social media component so that teachers can post comments, ask questions of other teachers, and critique the materials.
Q: How can teachers access the library?
A: States have to subscribe and provide login credentials to their teachers. The cost, which includes the interim and summative assessments in addition to the online library, is $27.30 per student. The summative assessment alone is $22.50.
Q: Can you describe the formative assessment?
A: A formative assessment is a process that teachers use in the classroom every day when they gather evidence about their students—through observation, discussion, and quizzes. The online library contains an array of resources to help teachers conduct such an assessment as effectively as possible.
Q: How will the interim assessments be used?
A: The interim assessments are optional and can be administered at any time during the year at the discretion of districts or schools. Teachers can see the questions and score the tests individually. Machines can score some questions automatically.
The interim assessment is available in two formats. The first is a comprehensive assessment. It resembles the end-of-year summative test. The English Language Arts (ELA) and Math components combined take about 6½ - 8 hours to complete, depending upon the grade level. A teacher or school is not going to administer this test all the time, but it can be very useful if a new student is coming into the classroom, say, or to inform future course planning.
"Interim assessment blocks” are the other component. These are shorter tests. They're organized around collections of related standards. For example, if you’ve been doing a unit on operations with fractions, you can use an interim assessment block on that topic to gauge students’ understanding. Teachers may decide to implement the interim test in selected classrooms or grade-wide. These tests roll out this winter, depending upon the state, and each state will handle its own test administration.
Q: Is there a risk of uneven scoring across states?
A: To ensure consistent scoring across states, we’re producing detailed rubrics and procedures for scoring. We’re also establishing tolerances for variation that are pretty tight, which states or their vendors will have to meet. And we’re setting up conditions that will allow us to compare student performance reliably across states.
Q: What can you tell us about the summative assessments, which are a source of anxiety among many teachers, students, and parents?
A: The end-of-year assessments will consist of two parts: a computer-adaptive test and a performance task. Students will be evaluated on those two components to get their total score. In ELA, students will have a reading score, a writing score, a listening score, and a research score. In Math, they will get results for concepts and procedures, problem-solving/modeling, data analysis, and communicating reasoning.
Q: How many people are on your staff at Smarter Balanced?
A: We have 10 employees working in “virtual” offices across the country. The Race to the Top grant ends in December 2014. Going forward, research, governance, and other tasks will be financed by dues that states pay to Smarter Balanced. The biggest priority is ongoing research and development. You can’t close the door and say that everything is done. You’re always in the process of updating tests and innovating. The largest portion of the dues will go to test updates. There will also be improvements to the software that undergirds the tests.
The Graduate School of Education at UCLA is going to become our new home. Even though we don’t have a central office, UCLA will serve as our “employer.” They will take care of back-office functions, technical needs, etc. More important, they have a fabulous research center called CRESST (Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing) so we’ll have access to incredible faculty members who will conduct the validity research that is necessary.
Q: What is your response to education leaders who say that the assessments are too costly for their state?
A: The cost of $27.30 per student for the full package is less than what most states pay per student now.
The most expensive part of the tests is hand scoring, which is needed for the writing component and other sections. We looked into automated scoring and, at present, we don’t recommend it. We don’t think the technology has progressed enough. If it continues to improve, we may decide to change that recommendation.
Q: Can teachers and parents preview the assessments?
A: Yes, we have practice tests on our website for every grade in both ELA and Math. The design of the assessment is consistent across states. It’s going to be the same in Maine, New Hampshire, and all of the other states in the Smarter Balanced consortium.
Q: How will you compensate for the lack of computer access that many students face?
A: We’re trying to keep the software as simple as possible so that students can focus on the test. We’ve found that students typically have no problem picking up the software. Nonetheless, we also have a training test that offers a brief dry run to familiarize students with the test software. It’s on our website, and it’s free.
Q: What about schools that are lagging behind in technology?
A: The most common technology issue for schools is bandwidth, more so than hardware. These days, you can get a Chromebook for $100. The cost of hardware has dropped so precipitously that it doesn’t seem to be an issue in most places. But bandwidth can be an issue. We’ve designed the tests in such a way that it keeps the amount of bandwidth required to a minimum. You won’t see videos or fancy animation.
To further reduce bandwidth demands, schools don’t have to test every student simultaneously. We’ve reduced security concerns by customizing the test to each student. Depending upon a school’s capacity, scheduling can be varied so that only one classroom is tested at a time or a child is tested only one hour per day.
We also have tools, including a bandwidth checker, so that schools can estimate how much bandwidth will be used beyond the day-to-day school operations. The checker will determine how many students can be tested simultaneously.
Q: What do you say to parents, like the ones cited in this New York Times article, who worry that children are being harmed by constant testing?
A: Efforts are underway to help states and districts take a good look at the totality of assessments. By providing an aligned system throughout the year, we hope to help schools come up with an appropriate, balanced system that informs instruction instead of detracting from it.
As far as the Times article is concerned, it sounds like the issues in Florida are more severe than in most other states. That said, there are concerns everywhere, and our goal is to provide tools that help states, districts, and schools come up with a coherent plan balancing formative, interim, and summative assessment, linking all assessments directly to the content being taught.
Our assessments are intended to replace—not add to—current tests. And because our assessments are built to reflect the standards, there is no need for "test prep" that is disconnected from what is being taught every day.
The chief state school officers came together recently to commit to working with their districts to evaluate the testing being conducted and identify tests that could be shortened or eliminated. We support that effort.
Q: What accommodations will you provide for English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with learning disabilities or cognitive deficits?
A: One of the great things about moving to computer-adaptive assessments is that you can do much more to customize the test according to a student’s needs and abilities so that each child has an appropriate testing experience.
Some accommodations are for disabilities. Others—like the ability to zoom in on a text passage—are tools that any student can use. For ELLs, we have built-in glossaries in 11 languages. When a student looks at a question, you want to know that they understand the concept, but you provide help. So if you’re asking about the area of a playground, for example, the word “playground” could be translated into a child’s native language, if necessary.
Our accessibility guidelines are on our website. We’re confident that we’re offering more resources for students than anyone ever has before. It’s pretty exciting. A student who is struggling won’t see question after question that he or she can’t do. This is a more engaging experience. Likewise, a very capable student won’t breeze through the test, so the results will be more accurate. The score will be based on the difficulty level, not just the percentage correct.
Experts who have been working on state assessments have long wanted to provide these options, but they haven’t always had the resources or funding. By pooling states’ expertise, and having federal dollars devoted to research and development, we’ve been able to make a big leap in terms of sophistication of the assessments and alignment to content.
Q: Might there be an opportunity to address the needs of students who are on or above level in Math, say, but below level in ELA?
A: That’s a big part of the promise of our assessments. Smarter Balanced was founded on the premise that good information matters for instruction, that teachers will be able to tailor instruction more effectively to enable all students to succeed.
Q: Are graduate schools of education preparing future teachers for the pedagogical changes being ushered in by the Common Core?
A: Accreditation standards have been rewritten to include a strong focus on the Common Core and to prepare student teachers for professional practice. Teaching candidates are now spending a lot more time in the classroom. No one thinks that these changes have happened as quickly as we’d like. But we’re moving toward a model that looks like other types of professional programs. In medical school, for example, you’re not just reading a book. You’re following a doctor around and doing more as your level of skill increases.
New exams for teaching candidates are being developed that include simulation, using avatars to portray rowdy kids coming in from recess, to cite one scenario. How is a teacher going to lead a discussion under those circumstances? This is all very much in development, but it sounds promising. Right now, the University of South Florida has an avatar lab that allows teaching candidates to practice classroom management and other critical skills
Q: In your role at Smarter Balanced, you’re focused on preparing students for higher education. How are colleges and universities responding to your efforts?
A: In Washington State, which is ahead of the other states, the public universities and community colleges have agreed that upon graduation from high school, students who have met a certain level of proficiency can enroll directly in credit-bearing courses with no need for remediation. West Virginia is working on a similar model.
The current numbers on remediation are tricky, but it’s estimated that half of students who enroll in community colleges go into remediation. At four-year-schools, it’s more like 20 percent. The chances of those kids getting a degree are very low. Colleges and universities, which are under a lot of pressure to improve graduation rates, recognize that they have a lot of work to do with K-12 education to bring more kids in the door prepared to be successful. The Common Core is really about the skills you need to be successful in life.
@ Gina Asprocolas