Feature                                                       Pages 30-33


Next-Generation Assessments

Aligned to the Common Core

Transitioning to online assessments in English language arts and math in 2014-15 to gauge students’ learning


Imagine an elementary school in Chapel Hill, N.C., a few years from now. A 5th grader named Alicia prepares to take a test, but there are no No. 2 pencils and no machine-readable bubble sheets. Instead, Alicia and her classmates are seated in front of laptops that allow them to access the assessment online.

The questions are different, too. Instead Alicia and her classmates are not just answering a test item such as “Divide 1/4 by 3.” They will also be asked to respond to real-world scenarios and justify their approach to solving problems with written responses and diagrams. In addition to demonstrating their knowledge of mathematical operations, students will be asked to explain what problems require division with fractions, for example, as opposed to multiplication. 

Joe Willhoft
Joe Willhoft (left) 

This assessment is one of several fairly short tests that Alicia will take throughout the school year. Her teacher calls them “pulse checks,” and they provide important feedback about what skills Alicia and her classmates have mastered. The teachers at Alicia’s school analyze this information in monthly meetings to make sure the entire school is on track, and Alicia’s parents have access to online reports about their daughter’s progress before she takes a final year-end exam.

In Alicia’s school, these assessments are not treated as the final word on her success. Rather they are one more tool that helps everyone assess Alicia’s progress. The assessment is not a goal but a means to ensuring she receives the support she needs.

While there are few statewide tests today that look like the one Alicia and her classmates are taking, that soon will change in schools across the country. Thanks to the Common Core State Standards and the development of new assessments aligned to the standards, the public education system is undergoing a transformation — and administrators can help make this vision a reality.

Periodic and Adaptive
Today, more than 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards. The standards, however, are just one part of a cohesive system that supports student growth and learning.

Educators also need new tools to measure whether students are mastering the knowledge and skills needed for success in college and careers, as well as resources and support to help them meet these goals. At the heart of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s work is a vision of assessment as an integral part of an aligned system of standards, curriculum, instruction and professional development, all focused on preparing students for college and career. The consortium is a state-led initiative developing next-generation assessments aligned to the Common Core (see related article, What is Smarter Balanced?).

Smarter Balanced is developing next-generation assessments in English language arts/literacy and mathematics that will be implemented in the 2014-15 school year. These assessments will provide a more complete, more efficient measurement of student progress — with periodic checks to help evaluate what students need to stay on the path to success and tools to help educators continuously improve instruction.

In addition to being delivered online, Smarter Balanced assessments will be computer-adaptive. A computer-adaptive test adjusts the difficulty of questions based on student responses, providing a uniquely tailored set of items for each student. Adaptive assessments provide more accurate measures of student achievement, giving educators richer information about where students excel and where they need support.

Administrators will play an important role in preparing districts for the transition over the next two years. A successful transition will require planning for technology readiness, real-world field testing, and training and professional development. In addition, teachers and parents will have many questions and will need resources and information about the assessments. Smarter Balanced is working with states to provide support in each of these areas, and administrators will have a critical role to play in preparing for the transition.

Technology Readiness
For many states and school districts, one of the most significant changes will be the switch to online delivery of the assessments. While computerized assessments have many advantages, including faster turnaround of results and flexibility for more sophisticated assessment items, they also require thoughtful planning of technology resources.

Smarter Balanced and the other assessment consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, have developed a technology-readiness tool to assess local capacity in instructional technology. Earlier this year, states worked with districts and schools to collect baseline information on the technology resources available in schools. This information is guiding the design of the assessments to ensure they reflect the reality of technology readiness in schools and districts.

Tight budgets mean few districts will be able to invest in new technology. In many cases, however, existing technology resources and infrastructure will be sufficient for the new assessments. Computers may be able to be repurposed for instruction and assessment, and many tablets and other computing devices will be able to administer the assessments. What’s more, the Smarter Balanced summative assessment will be administered during the last 12 weeks of the school year, allowing one computer lab to support many students.

Administrators can prepare their districts for online assessments by working closely with schools, with district assessment coordinators and with state information technology coordinators to develop and implement technology plans.

Additionally, each member state has appointed a state readiness coordinator, an individual or a team working with districts and schools to set up local users and provide support. District staff can use these coordinators as a resource to prepare schools to use the technology-readiness tool.

Finally, future data-collection opportunities through the technology-readiness tool will allow schools to provide updated information and help produce an accurate picture of their technology capabilities and needs.


What is Smarter Balanced?

Additional Resources

Pilot and Field Testing
In 2013 and 2014, Smarter Balanced will conduct two rounds of real-world testing of the assessments. In early 2013, Smarter Balanced will pilot several thousand test items and performance tasks. The pilot test will determine whether the items and tasks that will make up the end-of-year summative assessments and the periodic interim assessments are performing as intended.

The pilot test also is an opportunity for schools and teachers to gain experience administering the new assessments and to provide feedback that will inform the development of additional items and performance tasks for the field test in early 2014.

All schools in Smarter Balanced member states will be eligible to participate in the 2013 pilot test, and administrators should encourage their schools to take part in this important exercise. They can work closely with their principals to determine which grades or classrooms would be most appropriate to participate in the pilot test.

Professional Preparation
The Common Core State Standards and next-generation assessments provide an opportunity for educators in different schools, districts and states to collaborate like never before. Teachers and school leaders will have access to assessment results within weeks, allowing them to adjust lesson plans and address learning challenges.

Administrators can help shape environments and provide professional development opportunities that allow teachers to work together and share best practices. Creating opportunities for collaboration across subjects, grades and schools will help ensure that educators use and view the new assessments differently.

Many resources are available for administrators to share with teachers and principals to help them adapt and align lessons to the Common Core State Standards. (See resources.)

Smarter Balanced recognizes that teachers need better tools and training to make the most of the information from the assessments. Working with teams of teachers from each member state, the consortium will develop a digital library with research-based, formative-assessment strategies and practices, including instructional best practices for each grade level and strategies for collaboration. The digital library also will include training about implementing the assessment system, interpreting results and using data to improve instruction.

Communicating Publicly
As well-positioned advocates for children’s education, school district administrators have a role to play in informing school boards, parents and other stakeholders about the importance and implications of next-generation assessments. Communicating early and regularly about the Common Core and the new assessment system will ensure everyone is driving toward the same goal of college and career readiness for all students.

Specifically, it is beneficial to communicate that improved assessments are a critical step in implementing the Common Core. The new assessments will provide real-time feedback for teachers, students and parents about whether students are meeting the new standards.

Smarter Balanced believes that a high-quality system of assessments can improve teaching and learning and help all students graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college and the workplace. To do that, educators need more than just a score at the end of the year, when it is too late make a difference. Smarter Balanced will give teachers new tools to monitor student progress, as well as resources to meet each student’s unique needs.

In addition, Smarter Balanced has created a suite of materials that can be especially helpful when administrators speak to board members, parents or other community members. These materials can be found on www.smarterbalanced.org and include sample assessment items and performance tasks and fact sheets offering a general overview and audience-specific details. The site also has newsletters and updates on the consortium’s progress.

Looking Ahead
The American public education system could look quite different to Alicia and her classmates in a couple of years, but much work remains before then.

Across the country, this work is already under way. The implementation of the Common Core State Stand-ards and next-generation assessments is part of a larger shift toward preparing all students for college, careers and success in an ever-changing global economy. As Connecticut’s education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, told the Hartford Courant in July, “In the real world, the tasks that we are asked to perform in the workplace or in life do not involve bubble sheets. They involve research, analysis and the use of items that we find in the real world.”

Joe Willhoft is executive director of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in Olympia, Wash. E-mail: Info@SmarterBalanced.org


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