Two large coalitions of states are competing for federal “Race to the Top” dollars to create a series of new national academic tests to replace the current patchwork system.
In the current system, every state gives a different test to its students. In some states, passing the exam is a graduation requirement.
The federal government has said it will award up to two grants worth up to $160 million each to create a testing system based on the proposed new national academic standards in language arts and mathematics, also known as the “common core standards.”
The grants are part of the Obama administration’s efforts to encourage a new generation of exams that are delivered and scored by computer; focus on a deeper understanding of the curriculum, instead of just multiple choice; and can measure students’ readiness for college or a career more accurately. (See “Feds to shape the future of assessments.” )
Washington state is submitting an application on behalf of a group of 31 states calling itself the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium.
Florida is submitting an application on behalf of a group of 26 states calling itself the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Each coalition has a core group and a bigger collection of states supporting the idea. Some states have signed on to support both groups. The two proposals have many similarities, and the coalitions are working together on some things—but they are not identical in approach or philosophy.
A third organization has expressed interest in a separate grant to create just a high school test.
The Washington coalition’s proposal describes a testing system different from what is happening in most states in a number of ways:
• Testing would be online and would occur at least twice a year to help teachers and parents track student progress over the course of the school year.
• The exams would take advantage of “computerized adaptive testing” to measure each student’s abilities more precisely. When a student gets an answer right, he or she would get a harder question next, and when the student answers incorrectly, the next question is easier. That’s expensive, cutting-edge technology that most individual states could not afford on their own.
• Teachers would be given other tools for ongoing, informal assessment to help them figure out if students are learning on a daily basis, so they can adjust how they are teaching when necessary.
• The high school test will be designed for 11th grade, whereas many states currently give it in 10th.
• The system is expected to go beyond multiple choice tests and include short-answer questions, essays, and questions that require students to do research.
The Florida-led group talks about testing three times a year. Its tests would not be adaptive, and an initial reading of the two plans seems to indicate the Florida-led project might include more pen and paper work.
Kris Ellington, assistant deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, emphasized her group is focusing on accountability and affordability, in addition to looking for effective ways to measure the broadest demonstration of student knowledge.
Both initiatives would be long-term projects, with new tests ready to be used as state accountability exams by the 2014-15 school year.
Individual states still would determine whether to use the high school test as a graduation requirement and whether they want to use any system that is created. Half of all states currently require graduation tests of some kind.
It’s not clear yet how many states will adopt the common core standards for language arts and math. Federal law does not require adoption of the national standards, but each state must use some kind of test to determine if students and schools are making adequate yearly progress toward student achievement goals. The Obama administration has made adoption of the common core standards a criterion as states compete for $4 billion in other Race to the Top grant monies.
Washington’s assessment manager, Joe Willhoft, who is leading one of the coalitions, said this process is an opportunity for the states to fix a testing system that is too focused on meeting federal rules and get back to thoroughly testing children in a way that will give clear guidance to teachers and truly help improve education.
“We really have to have much better tests,” agreed Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Center on Education Policy.
Jennings says the federal No Child Left Behind law had the unintended effect of narrowing assessments to focus on accountability instead of driving student learning.
“We’ve lost our way, and this is an attempt to bring everybody back to the original purposes of teaching and assessment,” Jennings said.
Willhoft likes the idea of two paths toward new tests.
“There would be a lot of advantages for the Department of Education to have more than one consortium,” he said, adding that he expects the end result will be more creative and high-quality solutions.
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