Big promises for new testsState Board must choose one of two consortia – or not
If the two competing national organizations do design tests for the Common Core standards in math and English language arts as they promise, California will be better off. It and other states will then be able to eliminate, or at least minimize, some of the ills in the classroom that No Child Left Behind has caused, particularly in urban schools – test obsessions, dehydrated learning, and narrowed curriculums among them.
With $350 million the federal government is investing in a new generation of assessments, “we get a do-over,” an executive with one of the two consortia said.
It became clear, during two-hour presentations before the State Board of Education on Wednesday, that there are distinct differences in tone, in approach, and in choice of technologies between the two state-led consortia: Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. California can align with both or choose one. Whatever the State Board, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson decide – signatures of all three are needed – will be crucial, because the Common Core’s standardized tests will drive instruction, determining the curriculums that teachers use and how they teach them.
At the risk of great oversimplification, let me cut to the chase: Those looking for a kinder and gentler assessment, one that’s focused on using assessments to help teachers, will prefer SMARTER Balanced. Those who view accountability as the primary purpose of assessments, who believe that new and improved assessments should be integrated into the curriculum year-round, and who want to keep company with high-achieving Massachusetts and high-stakes Florida will prefer PARCC.
The differences are a matter of degree. Both consortia, complying with federal requirements, will deliver end-of-the-year standardized tests in grades 3 to 8 and high school. Both say they will offer interim and formative assessments, teacher training and lots of useful, immediate data on individual students. Furthermore, both consortia will argue that their assessments will measure critical thinking and deeper subject knowledge that the current multiple-choice tests don’t measure; they will tell teachers how well students are learning in the current year, not what they failed to learn last year, and provide strategies for better instruction. They will project ahead, telling parents whether 8th or 10th graders are on track to attend college.
Whether either or both can deliver all of their ambitious promises and meet the 2014-15 deadline for when the first tests will be administered is the big question the State Board must weigh. Cost is another; both consortia will use computer-based assessments and will assume that member states have technology in the schools. California has no money to fill in gaps in technology, train teachers in new standards, or buy new textbooks.
For the moment, California is nominally a member of PARCC but must decide again by May whether to participate in one or both consortia – and in what role, as a driver or as passenger. It can choose to be a governing member of either, with a role in making decisions, or it can choose to participate in both, in a non-policy role, under the assumption, “Hey, we’re California; you have to listen to us anyway.”
There are sensible arguments to jump on board early and use our clout or to wait and watch for a year to see which consortium is getting its act together. Doug McRae, a retired educational measurement specialist who spent decades developing standardized tests, urged the State Board to keep options open. “No decision has to be made until 2013,” he told me. “Let’s wait to see what they can deliver then to California and not act on promises being made today.”
Here’s a summary of what distinguishes the groups.
PARCC is the safer, more traditional of the two. Its 13 governing and 12 participating states include the larger East and Midwest states: Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Achieve, Inc. is managing it. The chairman of the governing board is Massachusetts’ education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, who personally made the pitch to the State Board on Wednesday. Massachusetts, with its reputation for excellent standards and tests, joined because he’s confident the assessment will be a step forward.
Pathways to career and college readiness: Achieve has been a leader in this area, and PARCC has singled out as a model California’s Early Assessment Program, which the California State University created, as a supplement to the for 11th grade STAR test, to signal whether students are ready for a four-year university. Starting with this and working back to grade 3 or even earlier, PARCC will create a vertically aligned assessment system that will provide signposts along the way whether students are on track for college. PARCC has already signed up institutions of higher ed, including CSU and California’s community colleges, as partners. So far, in both PARC and SMARTER Balanced, little attention has been given to how to measure career readiness.
Year-long assessments: California’s CSTs – the STAR tests – are end-of-the-year or summative assessments. PARCC would have that too, but it would also build in accountability assessments, called through-course assessments, three times during the year. With a promise for a quick turnaround of results, these tests – interim assessments that count – would show how much students are learning, enabling teachers to change teaching methods. “Teachers will get a better picture of student performance over the course of the year than with a short, end-of-the-year test,” Matt Gandal, Achieve’s executive vice president, told me after the presentation.
PARCC would develop intervention strategies, along with curriculum frameworks that flesh out standards.
What about the worry that test prep – drill and kill – would become a year-round preoccupation of teachers? No, Gandal said, because the new assessments would measure deeper levels of knowledge. They’d be more intellectually challenging and require that students apply what they have learned in essays. He cited one possible open-ended question: Should Congress curtail deep-water oil drilling? Students might synthesize several texts. They might be asked to write a letter to a member of Congress taking a position on the issue. The tests would go beyond rote knowledge measured by the current multiple-choice tests.
Some States like Tennessee have passed laws to use students’ scores on assessments to evaluate teachers. PARCC itself will take no position, but states will be able to do this. However, if they live up to expectations, PARCC’s assessments will be a better measure of student knowledge and provide feedback that teachers need during the year to improve instruction.
Its ambitious use of technology makes SMARTER Balanced more cutting edge – and riskier. It has 31 states, many of them small and west of the Mississippi. Washington is the lead state; San Francisco-based WestEd is managing the project. There are California connections. Stanford professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond is leading the program development.
Computer-adaptive testing: It’s not new. The state of Oregon and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) use it, but SMARTER Balanced would be its biggest application by far. Computer-adaptive tests are individually tailored to match student ability; the questions get progressively harder or easier depending on students’ previous answers. As a result, they can provide more thorough and accurate measures of student knowledge. Because they don’t get frustrated by failure, students take them more seriously, proponents say. By design, computer-adaptive tests require many more questions in the bank – a potential challenge.
Teacher-focused. SMARTER Balanced will have only end-of-year assessments for purposes of accountability. The purpose of its formative and interim assessments is to provide useful information to teachers. This is a key philosophical difference between it and PARCC. The end-of-year, computer-adaptive tests will be given over a 12-week period. Students will have the option of taking the test twice.
Teachers will be integrally involved; they will help create questions for the assessments, and they will be involved in scoring answers. Like PARCC, SMARTER Balanced promises multiple measures of student knowledge and richer, performance-based assessments, with more essays and short-answer responses and fewer multiple-choice questions.
English learners. One-quarter of California’s students are English learners, so new assessments must address their needs. SMARTER Balanced highlighted accommodations for English learners in its presentation. The consortium plans to translate assessments into several languages; it already is examining how to make questions and instructions accessible to English learners. (PARCC’s Gandal told me his consortium also has technical experts on the issue; the consortium has not yet decided whether to translate the assessments into other languages, although several states have indicated an interest.)
State Board President Michael Kirst said Wednesday that the board faces a complex choice. At this point, he has no preference, he said.
Others clearly do. During public comments after the presentation, representatives of 10 districts and organizations lined up to endorse SMARTER Balanced. They included Californians Together and CABA, the California Bilingual Association, representing English learners; the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council, representing business groups impressed with the consortium’s computer adaptive technology and its performance-based assessments; and Superintendents Barbara Nemko of Napa County and Bernard Gill of Antioch Unified.
David Rattray, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Chamber, said that with SMARTER Balanced’s performance assessments, “students will demonstrate knowledge that will be honored.”
No one spoke on behalf of PARCC. But the State Board has on file a Jan. 10 letter from seven superintendents with some clout. They’re from the districts that led the state’s second Race to the Top application. Now affiliated with CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, they include John Deasy of Los Angeles Unified, Carlos Garcia of San Francisco Unified and Christopher Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified. “Our needs in our districts are significant, and so is our resolve,” they wrote. “We would like the opportunity to benefit from the innovative approach to assessment that PARCC is taking.”
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