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Race to the Top of the Tests

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September 07, 2010 06:18 pm

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Students_and_AssessmentsWhile the $3.5 billion Race to the Top program has captured the attention of much of the education world, a smaller grant program might have an equal if not greater impact on schools across the United States. On September 2, the U.S. Education Department awarded a total of $330 million to two consortia of states to develop new assessment systems. If these consortia fulfill their ambitious plans, states will soon transform the way they test students in dramatic ways.

And most of the country will be affected. The larger of the two consortia, the Smarter, Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), led by Washington State, consists of 31 states; the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), led by Florida, consists of 26 states. (The total adds up to more than 50 because states at this point can serve as “advisory” states without committing to a consortium. Several states, including Alaska, Texas, and Virginia, are part of neither.)

In Principles for a Common Assessment System, a brief released in February, the Alliance for Excellent Education argued that current state testing systems place too much emphasis on a single measure, the end-of-year tests, and called for comprehensive systems that can better support instruction and learning. The two consortia’s plans are aligned with many of the principles outlined in that brief.

For one thing, the assessment systems they envision are comprehensive: they include formative assessments and instructional tools to support classroom teaching, in addition to tests for accountability purposes. They are aimed at providing accurate and credible information about whether students are on track toward college and career readiness. They call for a broad range of test formats to assess a broad range of knowledge and skills. They take advantage of technology to expand the kind of abilities that can be assessed and to do so more efficiently. And they would report results on an on-line platform that a wide range of stakeholders can access.

There are some significant differences in the two consortia’s plans.  SBAC would use computer-adaptive assessments, in which the items a student sees depend on how well they performed on previous items; such assessments can provide more accurate measures of high- and low-performing students relatively efficiently. By contrast, the PARCC consortium would administer assessments on computers in grades 6 through 12 (the consortium will conduct research on the feasibility of computer testing in earlier grades); these would not be adaptive.

SBAC would also rely more on teachers to score the assessments. The PARCC group would place an emphasis on reporting results in terms of whether students are on track toward college and career readiness.

There are many issues that need to be resolved before these assessments are put into place in the 2014-15 school year. For example, managing the consortia will not be an easy task; there are many legal and contractual issues that need to be resolved so that the states can administer common assessments. In addition, there are numerous technical issues that need to be worked out, such as how assessments administered throughout the year can be combined to produce a single score for students.

But the effort has enormous potential. If the groups can solve their problems, assessments will look substantially different in the next decade. And, as a result, teachers, parents, and the public will soon have a much better idea of what students know and can do.

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