Smarter Balanced, the organization that is designing the Common Core assessments for California and two dozen other member states, released sample test items for parents and teachers last week. As expected, they’re anything but your father’s multiple choice.
If all goes on schedule, beginning in 2014-15 students will use computers to take tests designed to measure their performance on the Common Core standards that California and most states adopted two years ago. The new tests will involve watching videos, using cursors to draw or move items and writing reports after doing research online.
Advocates of Common Core have argued that the standards are challenging not just because of what students must know but also how they must demonstrate that they know it. The questions certainly reflect that challenge.
“With Common Core, we are moving to assessments that reflect a deeper level of understanding as well as a different set of skill sets,” said Michelle Steagall, chief academic officer of CORE (California Office to Reform Education), the nonprofit organization that eight California districts formed, in part, to work together to implement Common Core. The sample questions, she said, “really do what Smarter Balanced set out to do, with multiple dimensions, rather than the singular dimension of multiple choice on the CSTs (California Standards Tests).”
The states-led Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium does this through the design and format of questions. Multiple-choice questions, which are efficient and useful when written well, will be included. But there will also be constructed response items that require a short explanation or outline to show that the student not only knows an answer but can explain how she derived it. There also will be computer-enhanced items that let students underline texts, pick out vocabulary words, or use a cursor to move items or draw a diagram. And there will be performance tasks, the most ambitious and time-consuming form of assessment, that Smarter Balanced says will measure students’ ability to “integrate knowledge and skills across multiple standards – a key component of college and career readiness.” A performance task, starting with a short classroom discussion framing the questions, followed by individual work, alone could take 2½ hours, about half of the duration of the current CST in some grades.
The sample items illustrate these capabilities. Among the math questions, students are asked to:
- Watch a short video of a swimming race, then explain how the order of the finishers would change if results were rounded to the nearest tenth-second (for fifth grade);
- Use a cursor to drag as many juice bottles as possible into a sacks capable of holding various weights (fourth grade);
- Plan the most economical class trip to a zoo, aquarium, or science museum based on different transportation costs and admission fees for each site while explaining how you arrived at your answer (sixth grade).
For English language arts, students are asked to:
- Read a two-paragraph story about the dog Oliver who falls into a lake and then write their own ending (fourth grade);
- Watch a video on the impact of weightlessness in space on the body and then, citing information they heard, explain why exercise in space is important (fourth grade);
- After a short class presentation giving an overview on sources of electricity, use sources on the Internet to create a list of pros and cons on the use of nuclear power; then, after a short break, imagine they are an aide to a congresswoman who asked for an argument on one side or the other in a report she needs immediately (eleventh grade). (To read an explanation and instructions for this performance task, go here.)
The questions are a handful of 10,000 items and tasks that Smarter Balanced will compile for a question bank for formative assessments, useful for teachers to measure student progress during a school year, and a year-end test on the Common Core standards. Each sample question includes information on the Common Core standard it’s associated with and the larger objective it measures, which, in math, are data analysis, communication and reasoning, problem solving, or conceptual or procedural understanding.
Tests that measure students’ ability to think critically and solve problems will take longer than multiple-choice questions, said Deb Sigman, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the California Department of Education, who also holds a key position on Smarter Balanced’s Executive Committee. But performance tasks, tied to practical problems that students can relate to, also can be more engaging. That’s important if you want students – particularly older students – to take the tests seriously, which may not be happening now with the CSTs.
CSTs also measure writing, but only in the fourth and seventh grades, and don’t include short-answer or constructed-response questions. To cut down on administration costs, Smarter Balanced is promising that artificial intelligence software will read at least some of the constructed responses. It’s also promising that the computer software administering the assessment will be adaptive, with the ability to customize which items students are given based on the answers they give to preceding questions. Adaptive software can better measure whether students are advanced or far behind; it hasn’t been tried on such a massive scale.
Sigman said that 130 schools in California are now pilot testing the Smarter Balanced items.
Many challenges remain. One is the length of time for the year-end exam, along with the cost to the states of administering it. (The feds paid for the $350 million to the two consortiums, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which serves another set of states, to design the tests, but that’s it.) Some states are pushing back at the prospect of an 11-hour test, even if it is engaging.
Another is technology. It’s far from clear whether schools in California and other Smarter Balanced states have the computer capacity, bandwidth, and technical personnel to pull off computer-administered tests in 2015, although the consortium has said it would provide paper-and-pencil tests if needed for the first three years.
Smarter Balanced hasn’t set the minimum requirements for device memory, operating system, and Internet bandwidth. It’s waiting for surveys back from the states. So far, 42 percent of schools in California have answered. What came through loud and clear was that districts were worried they don’t have the experienced personnel, after years of cutbacks, to administer the tests.
Those and other challenges notwithstanding, Shannon Fierro, an administrator with San Francisco Unified’s Achievement Assessment Office, said she’s excited to see Smarter Balanced’s sample items and performance tasks and is passing along the site to teachers.
A “more rigorous and authentic form of assessment” is important for students and for teachers. Asking students to highlight the correct passages in an essay, to outline key ideas and to write a coherent argument reflect the skills that students are expected to learn and teachers are expected to teach. With Common Core, they are in sync.
“Multiple-choice tests were part of a disconnect for students,” she said. “They could master how to choose from among four choices, but when they arrive in college and are asked to write a coherent essay and to interact with text, they are really stumped. Yet that is what college and the career world really demand.”