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CA Getting ‘Smarter’ with New Tests to Probe Critical Thinking

Brenda Iasevoli | August 27, 2013



images-1When California’s new statewide tests are in place by the spring of 2015, an 11th grade student might be asked the following: “Pretend you are preparing a report for a congresswoman on the pros and cons of using nuclear power to generate electricity. Gather some evidence, then write an essay arguing for either using nuclear power or banning it.”

Rather different from the usual instruction: “Pick the best answer, A, B, C, or D.” Right?

That’s because California is getting “Smarter.”

Beginning in the 2014–2015 school year, 25 states are replacing their standardized tests with “Smarter Balanced” assessments, a product of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups developing tests aligned to the new Common Core State Standards now being taught in 45 states.

In California, the new tests will replace the traditional Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessments, which were established by the legislature in 1997. The STAR tests passed into history on July 1 although the state has not yet decided what tests, if any, will be used for the current academic year.

“If you take a look at the Smarter Balanced prototype, you will see that almost all the items have a connection to the real world,” says Jaime Aquino, deputy superintendent of instruction for Los Angeles Unified. “It’s about application. It’s about measuring higher-order thinking. It’s not about multiple choice.”

Aquino says the new test is infinitely superior to the previous California standardized tests, which were entirely multiple choice, except for writing assessments in grades 4 and 7.  The Smarter Balanced tests are designed to probe critical thinking and analysis through a mix of multiple-choice, short answer and extended response questions.

Not all education experts are pleased with the change.

Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a nonprofit that works to promote quality education and testing, says the new Common Core-aligned tests are longer and “substantially more difficult” than previous tests, calling the questions “esoteric, highly technical and unnecessary for someone to succeed in college or life” with a format he says is no different from the tests many states give now.

“Because of the political pressure to develop these tests quickly and cheaply, they largely failed to revise them,” says Schaeffer. “It’s more important to get it right than to get it fast. It’s easy to develop the perfect assessment system in theory, but you need to try it out in practice.”

FairTest is calling for a moratorium on the Common Core tests. Schaeffer cites the sharp drop in scores in New York and Kentucky, after those states administered tests aligned to the new standards, and FairTest is not alone in its objection.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said back in April that the tests should not be used to judge student or teacher performance, or used in any other high-stakes decisions, until the standards have been field-tested. Education organizations, including the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association, have made similar requests.

Schaeffer suggests it will take more than three years to try out the assessments and improve them.

“In the perfect world, tests would be treated like prescription drugs,” he says. “Before you can sell a prescription drug in this country, you have to prove to a neutral body that it is both safe and effective. And you do that through experiments and trials and you build to mass administration. You don’t say, ‘Wow! This looks like it’s going to be a cure for a rare cancer’ and start administering it right away.”

In LA Unified schools, the Smarter Balanced tests will be taken on iPads. Elsewhere, students may take them on whichever devices—iPads, laptops, desktops—schools have available, with Smarter Balanced providing pencil-and-paper tests until the 2017–2018 school year to give schools time to acquire the appropriate technology.

The new tests for math and language arts will be given over the last 12 weeks of the school year in grades 3 through 8 and 11. There will be a mix of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Some parts of the test will require students to have some tech savvy. They may be asked, for example, to drag and drop fractions or decimals onto the correct place of a number line.

Students will also have to tackle a “real-world” writing assignment called a performance task, like the example above or this one. To complete some of them, students may first have to read articles or watch an informational video, like this one.

The new tests are lengthy. The language arts and math tests combined will take seven hours in grades 3 through 5 and 8½ hours in grade 11. Schools decide over how many days to administer the test. Teachers have the option to give assessments throughout the school year to track their students’ progress. Deb Sigman, California’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, says these interim tests would be a helpful way to inform teaching and learning.

“We have included in our assessment bill that we think the [interim tests] are vitally important and we encourage that the state pays for them for all districts,” Sigman told LA School Report.

The biggest difference with the Smarter Balanced assessments, aside from the fact that ultimately they will all be given on computers, is that they will adjust to the student taking them. Questions become more difficult or easy depending on how a student answers previous questions. The benefit, according to the Smarter Balanced website, is that the tests are individualized and can more quickly pinpoint the skills students have mastered.

“Struggling students who can’t answer the more difficult questions can be given a set of questions that can really home in on what it is they know,” says Sigman. “We’re not giving kids questions that we know they can’t answer. So it’s a more precise measure.”

This past spring, 52 LAUSD schools participated in pilot tests for the new assessments. Findings from the pilot tests are not yet available, but they will eventually be used to improve the assessments going forward.

Field tests will be conducted in the spring of 2014. In a letter to district superintendents and charter school administrators, Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, wrote that he is requesting “as many schools as possible” participate in the field test, insisting that “this will be a wonderful opportunity for our students and teachers.”

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