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December 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 4

Coming Soon: A New Generation of Assessments

How two Common Core assessment consortia were created—and how they compare.

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A short 27 months ago, two groups of U.S. states were each awarded more than $175 million to design, develop, and pilot test a new generation of assessments (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). These new tests will replace assessments in English language arts and mathematics in grades 3–8 and high school that are currently in use within state and federal accountability systems. They will measure individual student growth toward college and career readiness and provide data that can inform decisions regarding teaching and learning, program improvement, and educator effectiveness. The systems will be ready for use in the 2014–15 school year—about two years from now.
Why did the U.S. Department of Education fund the development of two different systems—the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced)? Certainly both groups submitted high-quality proposals. Some observers predicted that at least two consortia would receive funds to allay fears of a "national assessment" and of usurpation of local control over the curriculum. Whatever the reason, the two systems offer unique attributes and are working together to bring about substantive advances in K–12 testing, scoring, and reporting.

How the Initiative Got Started

The Common Core State Standards Initiative began in 2009, a collaborative effort among nearly all of the U.S. states and territories, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Several issues drove the initiative, such as evidence of significant differences in academic expectations across U.S. states; student mobility, which exacerbates the problem of disparate state standards; changes in the skill sets required for current and emerging jobs; and increasing global competition in the workplace.
The initiative released voluntary standards for mathematics and English language arts in 2010. Since then, all but five states (Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia) have formally adopted them (and Minnesota has adopted the English language arts standards only). Adopting states may augment the new standards with state-specific standards, provided the latter comprise no more than 15 percent of the state's total standards.
The initiative didn't call for, nor does it support, a national curriculum. The common standards were designed to identify the most essential skills and knowledge students need—not how students acquire them. The initiative is state led; oversight of curricular matters will continue to be the prerogative of the individual states.
The initiative also recognized that common standards alone would not achieve the goal of preparing all students for college or careers. The group called for the development of tools and resources for educators to use in adjusting their classroom practices, instructional materials aligned to the standards, and new assessments to measure and report on student progress. In response, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Race to the Top Assessment Program (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.), allocating $362 million to support the development of new assessment systems and a range of related supports.

Common Assessments and the Consortia

In March 2010, the U.S. Department of Education announced a competitive grant program for consortia of 15 or more states to develop new assessment systems aligned to common academic standards. In September 2010, two consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, were awarded grants to develop comprehensive assessment systems.
Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia have joined one of these two consortia as governing members, which means they will implement the new common assessments in 2014–15 in grades 3–8 and high school as their federally required assessments under No Child Left Behind. Another five states are currently provisional members of one or both consortia.
Although the Race to the Top Assessment Program funds are paying for the design, development, and piloting of the assessment systems and related supports, members will assume test implementation costs. For many states, these costs are projected to be lower than the costs of their current state testing systems, but for some, these costs will likely be higher. The federal grant requires that all assessment content developed with grant funds be made freely available to all states—even those that don't belong to a consortium—that request it for administering assessments. However, the timeline and security procedures for such access are not yet known.

What Should You Expect?

The assessment consortia are drawing on new advances in technology, cognitive science, and measurement as they develop this improved generation of assessments. They hope these new systems will address concerns about existing state assessments—that many assessments measure skills too narrowly; return results that are "too little, too late" to be useful; and do not adequately assess whether students can apply their skills to solve complex problems, an ability students need to succeed in college, the workplace, and as citizens.
These new assessments will differ significantly from most existing state assessments in the following ways:
  • Most students will complete the assessments on computers or other digital devices and receive the results within two weeks.
  • The assessments will feature complex, multipart tasks. In language arts, these include executing electronic searches, selecting credible sources, and developing a written argument supported by evidence from those sources. In math, these include solving applied math problems that require using modern tools such as statistical packages and dynamic graphing software.
  • The assessments will require students to comprehend and analyze texts across all content areas that are at a higher level of complexity than those that many districts now use.
Accordingly, teachers and students should expect to see more challenging reading materials on these assessments and more complex, real-world tasks in addition to the more traditional selected-response and short-answer questions. (For a comparison of the two assessment systems, see fig. 1.)
Doorey - Fig 1

An Overview of PARCC

The PARCC system aims to increase the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for success in college and careers. The assessments are intended to help educators increase student learning by providing data throughout the school year to inform instruction, interventions, and professional development as well as to improve teacher, school, and system effectiveness.
The PARCC assessment system will have a two-part summative assessment (a performance-based assessment and an end-of-year assessment); two optional components (a diagnostic assessment and a midyear assessment); and one required nonsummative assessment in speaking and listening. (PARCC test items and task prototypes.)

The Summative Assessments

The two required summative assessments will assess Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy and in mathematics for grades 3–8; three grades of high school English language arts; and two pathways in high school mathematics (Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II; and Mathematics I, Mathematics II, and Mathematics III). Students will take the summative assessments on computers.
Performance-based assessments. For each grade and course tested, the performance-based assessments will focus on the hard-to-measure standards, such as the grade 11–12 English language arts standard that calls for students to "synthesize information from a range of sources (for example, texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
Tasks may include short-, medium-, and extended-response items as well as computer-enhanced items. Simulations may also be used when needed to obtain a better measure of a standard, with more sophisticated simulations to be added as the technology infrastructure in member states evolves. For example, the mathematics standards call for "making inferences and justifying conclusions." Simulations of a wide variety of experiments could be used to determine whether students can generate a model of the relationship among multiple variables, draw inferences, and justify those inferences with data.
These assessments will be given as close to the end of the school year as possible (after approximately 75–80 percent of the instructional time for the school year has occurred) and will likely require a mix of human and computer scoring. This component will not generate a separate score but will be used in conjunction with the end-of-year assessment to determine the student's summative score.
End-of-year comprehensive assessments. The end-of-year assessments will take place during the last few weeks of the school year and use a range of innovative item types, such as selected-response, constructed-response, and technology-enhanced items. Multiple versions of the test will be developed for each grade level to allow for varying time frames across member states and schools. The assessments will be electronically scored for fast return of results.
The system will produce data on proficiency, college and career readiness, and growth for use in accountability systems. Because results from the two portions of the summative assessment will be combined, PARCC anticipates having nearly twice as many score points in its summative tests as state tests currently have. This will enhance the system's ability to measure the full range of student performance against grade-level standards and student growth across a broad performance spectrum.
An online interactive data tool will provide teachers, parents, and administrators with access to results after each assessment and will include tools for displaying data, creating customized reports, and comparing the performance of similar schools. In addition, parents will be mailed printed reports after each assessment.

The Diagnostic, Midyear, and Speaking and Listening Assessments

PARCC is developing optional diagnostic and midyear assessments for grade levels 3–8 and high school as well as a required speaking and listening assessment.
Diagnostic assessments. Diagnostic assessments in English language arts and mathematics will be designed to pinpoint students' strengths and weaknesses relative to particular standards for each grade or course. Starting in September 2014, these assessments will be available throughout the school year and will provide an indicator of student knowledge and skills so schools can tailor instruction, supports, and professional development to address student needs.
For example, they may be used to identify a subset of students in a classroom who share a common misconception that can be addressed through targeted instruction, a student who is missing fundamental prerequisite skills and requires additional support, or an area of the standards in which the faculty could benefit from targeted professional development.
Midyear assessments. Midyear assessments will feature rich performance tasks that mirror the types of tasks included in the summative performance-based assessments. States and districts may choose to administer—even require—a midyear assessment. In future years, if studies support such use, states may choose to include this component as part of their summative results.
Speaking and listening assessments. To assess the speaking and listening standards within the Common Core State Standards, an assessment will be required, but it will not be used in determining the summative score. Schools can administer this component at any time during the academic year. One option for this assessment may involve asking students to do an oral presentation on their written product from the English language arts midyear performance task and engage in academic conversation with classmates about the ideas presented. Teachers will score students' speaking and listening skills using a standardized rubric. If they wish, they can incorporate the scores as part of student grades.

Other Resources from PARCC

PARCC will develop a Partnership Resource Center, which is expected to launch in 2013. This web-based platform will offer a continually expanding collection of resources for teachers, students, administrators, and parents, such as released test items, formative assessments, model content frameworks, professional development resources, practice tests, and student and teacher tutorials.

An Overview of Smarter Balanced

The Smarter Balanced system is designed to strategically "balance" summative, interim, and formative assessments while providing accurate year-to-year indicators of students' progress toward college and career readiness. The system has two summative components and an optional, customizable system of adaptive interim assessments. (Sample test items.)

Summative Assessments

Smarter Balanced will develop accountability assessments for English language arts and literacy and for mathematics for grades 3–8 and grade 11 consisting of two components—performance tasks and an end-of-year computer-adaptive assessment. Although the assessments will be delivered on the computer, the consortium will offer a paper-and-pencil option for three years as schools transition to this format. A unique attribute of the Smarter Balanced summative assessments is that students can retake the summative assessments if this option is locally approved. The retake would consist of a new set of items and tasks.
Performance tasks. Administered during the final 12 weeks of school, these tasks will generally take students 90–120 minutes to complete for each content area; high school tasks will take longer than those for younger grades. The tasks will be organized around real-world scenarios. For example, high school students may be asked to review a financial document, conduct a series of mathematical analyses using a spreadsheet or statistical software, develop a conclusion, and provide evidence for it. The performance tasks will evaluate aspects of the Common Core State Standards that are difficult to assess through more traditional items. A combination of teacher and machine scoring will be used.
End-of-year computer-adaptive assessment. This end-of-year assessment will consist of approximately 40–65 questions for each content area and will include selected-response, constructed-response, and technology-enhanced items. Most of these items will be immediately scored, although some human-scored elements may be included.
Student scores from both the performance tasks and the computer-adaptive test will be combined for the annual summative scores in English language arts and mathematics. The consortium will build vertical scales across grades 3–11 in both subject areas, which schools can then use as the basis for growth measures that evaluate an individual's progress toward college and career readiness across the years. Although the specifics of the vertical scale have not yet been developed, it can be thought of as similar to a yardstick used to measure a child's height across the years. Both the summative assessment results and the interim assessment results will be reportable on this vertical scale.
A web-based platform will manage assessment data and provide sophisticated data reporting and analysis tools for customized reports. Security settings will enable students, teachers, parents, and administrators to view appropriate data. Student scores on the performance tasks will be reported separately as well as in combination with the computer-adaptive testing component. To aid interpretation, the report will illustrate student performance levels with specific examples.

Optional Interim Assessments

Optional computer-adaptive assessments will be available for grades 3–12 in English language arts and mathematics. The item types will mirror those on the summative assessment. Educators can use the open item bank for both instruction and professional development.
Because states, districts, and schools can determine the number, scope, and timing of the interim assessments, they can tailor them to local curriculums. Two modes of test administration will be available. One version will yield a score on the same scale as the summative assessment, which schools can use as a growth or achievement metric. A shorter "cluster assessment" mode, perhaps targeting the most recently taught standards, will provide more detailed feedback.

Other Resources from Smarter Balanced

A digital library and comprehensive electronic platform will hold an expanding collection of resources for teachers, administrators, students, and parents, such as released items and tasks, model curriculum units, instructional resources, formative tools and exemplars, and professional development modules.
Tough challenges are likely ahead as district and school leaders work to bring the Common Core State Standards alive in their classrooms within two years. What can school and district leaders do to begin this transition?

Build Teacher Understanding

A necessary first step is to engage teachers in a careful analysis of the standards. Discuss the standards within grade-level groups and across grade levels so teachers see how the key concepts develop and build on one another over multiple years. For example, students in grades 6–8 will build their understanding of geometry beginning with surface, area, and volume. They will then progress through the use of angle measure in figures to the rotation, reflection, and translation of cylinders, cones, and spheres. (See the progressions documents.)
The English language arts standards include three appendices that illustrate the practical application of the standards at the classroom level, which many teachers find essential to understanding the instructional shifts required. In mathematics, the Standards for Mathematical Practice are an excellent starting point for understanding what's new and different about these standards. Carving out regularly occurring blocks of time for teachers to explore the standards is essential to building depth of understanding.

Take Advantage of Resources

Even as the field awaits the resources that the consortia are developing, a growing number of free, high-quality resources are available on the web. The Council of Chief State School Officers has developed a list of tools and resources. Several states that won Race to the Top state grants are also making their tools and resources available. Of particular note is EngageNY, which offers tailored materials for principals, transition team leaders, teachers, and administrators. Administrators should also check their own state education department website for resources and guidance.

Groom Lead Teachers

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced are forming cadres of lead teachers and educators within each member state. These educators will gain deep understanding of the standards, assessments, and available tools and resources and then train others within their states. Check with your consortium contact person to find out about your state's plans for these activities.

2015 and Beyond

K–12 assessment is at the beginning of a sea change. Many of the competencies now considered essential for success in college and the workplace are complex and difficult to measure. The assessment consortia, caught in the midst of this change, must navigate a series of tough challenges, choices, and trade-offs.
To meet the expanded policy purposes and anticipated uses of the data, these systems of assessments must go far beyond simply determining whether a student has met grade-level standards. They must measure individual growth for all students and provide more accurate information concerning students who perform well above or well below the standards. They must yield fine-grain information that can inform instructional and programmatic decisions. And they must be able to evolve over time to reflect changes in the skills needed in our global marketplace and to incorporate advances in technology, cognitive science, and measurement.
The goal, then, is to ensure that the assessment systems of 2014–15 are the best possible starting point for this new generation of assessments. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this coalescence of states around a common set of academic standards and two comprehensive assessment systems is the creation of the critical mass needed to accelerate research and development across the entire K–12 education enterprise.
Thus, 2014–15 is not really the finish line, but only the first leg in a longer relay race to create next-generation teaching, learning, and assessment systems that prepare all students for a strong future and are worthy of our children, teachers, and schools.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/thestandards

U.S. Department of Education. (2010, September). U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan announces winners of competition to improve student assessments [press release]. Retrieved from www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-secretary-education-duncan-announces-winners-competition-improve-student-asse

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Race to the Top Assessment Program. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/awards.html

End Notes

1 The following states are members of the PARCC consortium: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.

2 The following states are members of the PARCC consortium: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.

3 In addition to the two consortia chosen to develop comprehensive assessments, four other consortia were awarded grants to develop next generation assessments. The Dynamic Learning Maps Alternate Assessment Consortium and the National Center and State Collaborative will design assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. New assessments of English proficiency for English language learners will be developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in collaboration with the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium and by the Oregon Department of Education in collaboration with a group of states. The Oregon-led consortium of 12 states was awarded an Enhanced Assessment Grant in fall 2012, and the specifics are not yet available at the time of this writing.

Nancy Doorey has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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