California switches test consortiumsKirst sees upside with SMARTER Balanced
In a decision with long-term policy implications, California has switched membership in the state-led consortiums that will create the standardized tests for the new nationwide Common Core math and English Language Arts standards.
California will become one of 18 governing states in the 30-state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. It is most closely identified with one of its chief advisers, Stanford University School of Education Professor and author Linda Darling-Hammond, an advocate for teachers and a sharp critic of the current generation of standardized tests.
Gov. Jerry Brown, Supt. Of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst signed a memorandum of understanding committing California to SMARTER Balanced. Last year, their predecessors in office had signed up California as a participating member in the other consortium, Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC), which has two dozen states.
Choice of observing or shaping
California had the option of choosing one consortium in a decision-making capacity or joining both as observers. A number of education leaders had recommended the latter option for now, until it becomes clearer which consortium could better deliver on its promises. A half dozen states are members of both.
Others argued California should be in the driver’s seat. “I think we should be in a leadership position,” Torlakson said, “so that we can better shape the outcome.” As a governing member, California can vote on decisions and have representatives on various technical and policy committees.
The federal government has awarded the two consortiums $360 million to develop the assessments by 2014-15, a daunting schedule that leaps past the customary process of spending years fleshing out standards through curriculum frameworks and developing instructional materials and teacher training before tests are developed. Both consortiums will develop annual tests for grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. Both are committed to create tests measuring whether students are on a successful path toward college and/or a career. Both will use multiple-choice questions for part of the tests. Both will have a common scale of measurement and cut points for proficiency that will allow cross-state comparisons – not readily possible now under independently developed state assessments.
But there are distinct geographical and philosophical differences between the two consortiums, and it’s significant that Brown, who has expressed skepticism over California’s testing system, has allied the state with SMARTER Balanced.
As I’ve noted before, both consortiums say they will be creating the next generation of assessments using computers and testing higher-level thinking. But SMARTER Balanced emphasizes performance measures – more in-depth exercises and demonstrations of higher skills. These are more complex, and potentially harder to grade and to make individual class and school comparisons for high-stakes accountability purposes.
SMARTER Balanced also will use computer-adaptive testing, which by choosing questions based on students’ previous answers, can better measure individual student knowledge and skills. Computer-adaptive testing has been used extensively in higher education but not in K-12 at this scale. It will require a much larger bank of questions than standard tests and well-equipped computer labs in every school.
Torlakson acknowledged that computer-adaptive testing may be a challenge in California, which he said is ranked 47th in the nation in its use of technology. But he said he plans a technology initiative that will call on businesses like Comcast to assist schools and will include technology components in the next state school bond issue.
PARCC, which will be managed by Washington, D.C.-based Achieve, is taking a more traditional approach, with a series of periodic tests, called through-course assessments, leading to an end-of-year test. This has received considerable criticism lately from those who fear that through-course tests will regiment state curriculums. PARCC is said to be rethinking this approach. PARCC plans to base its college readiness measures on California’s Early Assessment Program, an 11th grade test used to gauge readiness for CSU. That’s one reason that the seven superintendents who led the state’s second-round Race to the Top application endorsed PARCC. “PARCC is designing a system that will emphasize college and career preparation, a necessary raising of the bar in today’s competitive global economy,” said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy in an unpublished opinion piece.
SMARTER Balanced is also more teacher-oriented, which is why the California Teachers Association endorsed it and Torkalson, a CTA ally, liked it as well. Darling-Hammond said yesterday that the consortium is committed to work with teachers in all phases of test development and that SMARTER Balanced will provide instructional supports for teachers and formative assessments – diagnostic exams that let teachers know how students are progressing.
“SMARTER Balanced will refocus us on learning and not just testing,” Darling-Hammond said.
But some see the linking of formative and end-of-year or summative assessments as a weakness, not a strength, and as a factor in undermining the accountability value of testing.
Doug McRae, a retired test publisher and occasional contributor to TOP-Ed, called the selection of SMARTER Balanced “a major turning point for California” and a move “toward instructionally-based assessment and away from accountability-based assessment” – a “softer approach.”
McRae was among those who called for participating in both consortiums, as a way to learn from both and as a safeguard; he thinks both will have difficulty meeting their commitments in time. And McRae said he was disappointed that there was no analysis or vetting of the decision in public. Other states had advisory committees that were involved in the choice of consortiums, he said.
The State Board held a lengthy hearing in March, at which representatives of both consortiums made presentations and the Board heard public testimony. But the choice was not formally brought to the Board. Only the signature of Kirst, as president, was required. (Kirst, traveling to New England Thursday, could not be reached for comment.)
UPDATE: Kirst, reached today (the poor guy was waylaid at Dulles yesterday and never made it to his 50th college reunion), characterized SMARTER Balanced as “the best fit for California at this time.” The computer-adaptive technology “is a gamble but has a big upside” because California has a range of student body backgrounds with large numbers of students without strong English language skills. “This will tell us what students know as opposed to what they don’t know.” SMARTER Balanced also showed in its presentation more understanding of issues for English language learners, he said.
“SMARTER Balanced seemed more adventuresome in trying to prove deep learning in designing the assessment,” Kirst said. He said he wasn’t sure that the consortium is more teacher-centric but agreed that teachers certainly perceive it that way. And he said that he, Brown and Torlakson did get a lot of feedback from the public, compared with last year, when the governor, state superintendent and state board president signed the MOU without any public participation.
PARCC has more of an East Coast – Florida, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey — and large Midwest states membership, while California joins a distinctly Western and New England, minus Massachusetts, membership in SMARTER Balanced. It will be managed by San Francisco based WestEd and has familiar ed policy academicians serving on advisory committees. Beside Darling-Hammond, they include Jamal Abedi, UC Davis; Ed Haertel, Stanford University; Joan Herman, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing and James Popham, UCLA.
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