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:

This is a diagram showing one variable – distance – in a performance task for middle school students who are asked to determine the most economical field trip for a class of 30 students. Click to enlarge.

This is a diagram showing one variable – distance – in a performance task for middle school students who are asked to determine the most economical field trip for a class of 30 students. Click to enlarge.

  • 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.)
This question, which also includes a short animation, asks high school students to calculate the height of beam G and explain how they derived the answer. Click to enlarge.

This question, which also includes a short animation, asks high school students to calculate the height of beam G and explain how they derived the answer. Click to enlarge.

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.

Engaging students

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.”

 


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  1. Teacher says:

    I’ve attended a couple weekend courses preparing me as a teacher for the common core. I think the common core is pointing us in the right direction. Previously, my teaching style was more towards the traditional approach of teaching the algorithms (multiply this by that, then add, then…), then after a set of 20 or so problems, the students might work on 2-3 word problems.
    After the courses I took through WSMI, I am now focusing more on real-world (as close as we can get it) problem-solving, modeling, and use of the algorithms. A large portion of the common core emphasis is problem-solving. To the critics of the problems above, it can be tough to write problems students can understand and complete with their limited knowledge of math and world experiences. So when I looked at the construction problem above, I didn’t over analysis why there might be a need for a beam, nor would the students. Would you rather have a page long explanation of the issues with the house???
    The bottom line – the common core and the new form of testing seems like a positive move in education. The state standards of the past were to general, the WKCE test was in Oct/Nov (why?), you didn’t get results until months later.

  2. Angry Educator says:

    So, what is the correct answer to the item 43057?
    What is the hieight of segment G?

  3. Concerned Parent says:

    I have 2 sons…one goes to the public school system where he spirals through education in an ADD fashion touching on tons of material superficially yet delving into none – all for the sake of tapping into his cognitive reasoning abilities – which schools play little role in developing. The are to work KNOWLEDGE – cognitive ability lies in genetics for the most part.

    The other son goes to a private school where they work in skills and knowledge the old fashioned way – he learns them deeply and does not move onto new material until the old one is mastered. No gimmicks, no computers, all old fashioned curriculum.

    I had them both recently take a 6th grade reading test Terranova and Common Core reading test – both geared towards this ADD spiral type education that then testers think should result in better critical thinking skills.

    My 6th grader scored in the 80th percentile – my straight A student.
    My 4th grader scored in the 99th percentile on the 6th grade test – my one who needed a small traditional school because he could not cope with the 20+ kid learn everything yet master nothing system.

    I should note both have very similar IQs and IQ subset strengths and weaknesses and both had similar Woodcock Johnson results.

    Net – this is all wasted money. These tests will show that cognitively average kids are just that and many cognitively average kids will simply fail when demands to reason are above their current performance capability – especially when so much is thrown at them in the elementary years yet they master no knowledge of foundational skills.

    I wish I had tbe money to send both my boys to private school…alas, it costs $20,000 a year and I had to pick between the one that could function in public vs. the one that could not at all.

    I read this jibberish and it makes me sad that my one son will be subjected to wasteful hours preparing for these ‘clever’ tests that would have been better spent actually helping him acquire true KNOWLEDGE so he could at the right time apply it to real world problems.

    1. Opting Out says:

      My son goes to public school, but he will not be taking these standardized tests because they are of no benefit to him personally. Tests do not teach children; they only indicate what children already know. States have this insatiable demand for data, but they do not actually use this data to help individual children.

  4. navigio says:

    Yikes. I would have failed these tests. For the one on the ‘most economical’ field trip (I hope we’re not trying to create a new generation of ‘reformers’ asking about the cheapest way to get education done) I would have scratched my head and wondered whether there was a big hill between the school and the science museum. Or wondered what the gas mileage of the school bus was on the freeway vs on steep hills. Or, more importantly, whether we happened to be studying the animal kingdom, sea life or astronomy at the moment.
    One of the most confusing things for me on tests growing up was when there was some disconnect from reality in the question, like Ze’ev mentions above. Not only the confusion in terms, but the mention of a ‘back wall’ (?) and then given the shape of the room, if it had been built properly, there is likely no need for a post at position G. These may sound like trivialities but when you are asking a person to think critically, they have to be working with situations that mimic experience, otherwise its counterproductive.

  5. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    This is not the place to detail the many technical problems with the sample items, but I would simply point out that in their enthusiasm for “authentic real world” problems the writers are at risk exposing their authentic ignorance of the real world (without the quotes). Like confusing beams with posts, for example.

  6. Bill Younglove says:

    (Too?) Early on, I love many aspects of the trotted out early version SBAC test items. My concerns have to do with, way down the road, final item analysis. Will the SBAC testers delete those test items that students do the best on, as past standardized test designers have so often done? More importantly, how and when will present “teach to the test” instruction change in ways that will allow these new assessments to provide truly accurate–and fair–test outcomes? Many of us have waited at least ten very, very, very long NCLB years for the latter.
    Bill Younglove :-)

  7. Paul Muench says:

    Some assumptions for an elementary school: 10 hours of testing per class, 10-15 classes in a school, enough computers (30) to test one class at a time which means 100 – 150 hours of testing. Assume 30 usable hours per week which means 3.33 to 5 weeks of testing. And if every school has to be synchronized potentially much more, but perhaps the computerized tests will be able to compensate for that. Seems we’re due for a substantial increase in the IT budgets for school districts if we want to limit the time-frame of standardized testing to the current amount.