Four states have encountered serious glitches and system meltdowns over the past several weeks as they have moved their own state assessments online. But the head of the state-led consortium creating the Common Core tests for California and two dozen other states expressed confidence Wednesday that his organization is working closely with states and taking precautions to avoid significant problems.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is one of two state consortiums – the other is PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) – that is committed, under a federal contract, to introduce the much-anticipated computer-based assessment in the spring of 2015. Students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 will be tested in English language arts and math.
“We are on schedule and ready to roll,” Smarter Balanced Executive Director Joe Willhoft said in an interview after testimony before the State Board of Education.
The consortium has posted minimum computing requirements and a bandwidth calculator that schools can use to measure capacity. It has also said that it would supply paper-and-pencil versions of the assessments for the first three years. Willhoft predicted that some schools in California may decide to do both in the transition, trying computer-based tests in some grades, paper and pencil in others. (The paper version will cost $10 to $12 per student more to administer.)
“We are doing all we can to safeguard against those challenges” that other states have experienced, he said. “We have confidence in being able to implement effectively, because of the care in pressure-testing items and software.”
The consortium is wrapping up a three-month pilot test involving 1 million students in 5,000 schools – about 10 percent of the Smarter Balanced students – who are taking 5,000 test questions and doing more complex, multi-step performance tasks. California’s 3.5 million students in the grades that will be tested comprise one third of the consortium’s students.
On May 29 – mark your calendars, parents – Smarter Balanced will post a practice exam online that will give teachers and the public a more extensive look at the types of questions that students will be tested on in two years. A year from now, in spring 2014, there will be a larger field test for 2.5 million students – a quarter of the students in Smarter Balanced states – of the full 45,000 items that contractors for the consortium are producing. Based on those results, evaluators will define performance levels (proficient, advanced, basic, below basic) for the questions and the overall scores for the actual test. The consortium hasn’t decided if state scores will be released for the field test. State Board member Sue Burr said Wednesday she would discourage it, in order to “lower the fear factor” among schools and districts that are now beginning to prepare for Common Core.
Willhoft said that along with giving an initial run-though experience for schools, the results of the pilot test this spring should answer key questions for moving forward:
- Do the performance tasks involving real-world problem solving – the heart of the assessment and what will distinguish it from current standard multiple-choice tests – actually work well?
- Can computers be used to score open-ended questions? Willhoft said that he anticipates that the more complex tasks, involving writing and detailed explanations of work, will be hand-scored, mostly by teachers.
- Can bias, like improper assumptions of prior knowledge that lower-income students may not have, be avoided in writing items and tasks?
- Can students use online tools? Several board members focused on this issue during Willhoft’s presentation. Aida Molina said that those schools rich in computer resources compared with those that lack them raise an equity issue. Will test results reflect a lack of knowledge or difficulties that some students have in knowing how to work the computer? she asked.
In the interview, Willhoft downplayed the computer skills gap. The amount of training needed to do the test is minimal, basically how to use a mouse and use arrow keys. “Few students have never had an experience (with a computer) of any kind,” he said, including a computer game. The practice tests will remain online for two years, providing further exposure, he said.
The minimal computing requirement for a 600-student school will be a computer lab with 30 computers, with students taking the assessment over a 10- to 12-week period. (Some experts have questioned how students can be compared over such a long testing window.)
It’s not certain that California will introduce the Smarter Balanced assessments for accountability purposes in spring 2015. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson supports it, as does State Board President Michael Kirst. Last week, the Assembly Education Committee passed AB 484, which Torlakson authored, establishing the 2014-15 year for introducing the assessment while suspending some state standardized tests in 2013-14 to free districts to prepare for Common Core. At the State Board meeting on Wednesday, Sherry Griffith, interim assistant executive director for the Association of California School Administrators, also called for moving ahead now with Smarter Balanced.
But Senate Education Committee Chair Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, has introduced SB 247, which would extend the current California Standards Tests and push back Smarter Balanced tests for two years, out of recognition that many cash-strapped districts have only begun to train teachers in the new standards and haven’t yet bought materials.
Last week, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was the latest leader to call for a moratorium on using results of Common Core assessments for teacher evaluations and judging schools. One option, which would require federal approval, would set 2014-15 as a base year for Common Core assessments, without penalizing schools and districts for the scores.
Two other issues raised during Willhoft’s presentation are worth noting:
- Willhoft said that Smarter Balanced would create an Algebra I test that could be given to 8th graders. That responds to one concern advocates of algebra in middle school had: the lack of an assessment to go with a new Common Core algebra course. However, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Deb Sigman said she doubted the assessment would be ready by 2014-15.
- The Smarter Balanced tests are expected to be at least twice as expensive as the multiple-choice California Standards Tests, because about a quarter of the test – the more complex performance tasks – must be scored by hand. CSTs cost about $13 per student; Smarter Balanced tests will cost around $26 per student, Sigman projected. This includes a large-state discount, applying to states with more than 1 million students, for the development of the items, Willhoft said.