Smarter Balanced assessments: A big moment for our schools

Joe Wilhoft

I began my career as an inner-city elementary teacher because I was dedicated to helping students succeed. Listening to them and helping them improve to meet their goals was at the heart of my work. Today, as the executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, I feel that passion more deeply than at any point in my career. This is a big moment for our schools—a moment in which we can deliver a system of tools that will help teachers and parents truly understand where students are excelling and more clearly identify where they need help.

We will not—and cannot—create a world-class assessment system in isolation. We have the privilege of working with educators and experts across our member states to craft an assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards that will measure where students are on their path to success. These new assessments will provide an “academic checkup” by measuring real-world skills like critical thinking and problem solving. In addition, they will provide information during the year to give teachers and parents a clearer picture of where students are succeeding and where they need help.

More than 2,000 educators across our member states have contributed to building the assessment system, with more than 500 teachers doing the painstaking work of writing and reviewing assessment questions and performance tasks. Our member states and their educators have done an incredible job of keeping the needs of students at the center of our work, and we have learned together as this multiyear development process has proceeded, improving our products along the way. As schools prepare for our field test that begins on March 18, it’s helpful to highlight other milestones in the development process.

First, to ensure that we understand how students interact with assessment questions, we conducted Cognitive Labs in 2012, in which a researcher worked directly with a student as they worked through various types of questions. This provided the initial tryout for innovative question types and our testing software and helped to reveal where students were getting hung up and where they were flying through.

We were then ready to conduct small-scale trials to explore promising types of questions and software features with a larger cadre of students. These were designed to have about four-hundred students interact with each item during this early quality-review process.

A particular focus has been to ensure that we understand and respond to the needs of English language learners and students with disabilities. Guided by advisory committees composed of national experts in the educational needs of both populations, and informed by the latest research, we have worked to take full advantage of computer delivery to offer what is likely to be the most comprehensive suite of research-tested accessibility and accommodation features ever offered in a general K–12 assessment.

Last spring, our research pool expanded substantially when 5,000 schools and 650,000 students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 participated in a pilot test to try out the first 5,000 test questions and performance tasks we had developed. In addition to providing us information on our questions, the pilot test allowed students and teachers to experience the same testing software that will be used for the operational assessments in 2014–15. This was a great learning experience for us, and we made many improvements to the assessments as a result.

Since the pilot test, our staff, volunteer educators, and contractors have been incredibly busy building our initial pool of 21,000 test questions and performance tasks. Guided by all we learned during the research I have described, we have assembled assessments that will no doubt be challenging for students and for schools but that will fairly and accurately assess how students are progressing toward readiness for college and careers.

We now approach the most far-reaching step in our research and development process: the field test, which will take place from March 18 to June 6, 2014. Administered online, this practice run will involve more than three million students and 20,000 schools across twenty-two states. It will help us ensure that every question contributes to assessments that are valid, reliable, and fair for all students. It also gives teachers and schools a chance to make sure technology systems and administration logistics are ready for implementation of online assessments, as well as students the opportunity to experience the new assessments. Smarter Balanced will use information from the field test to make final improvements to the assessments and plan for their roll out.

We don’t expect this practice run to be perfect, and we expect to discover challenges. Working together with teachers and school administrators, states in the Smarter Balanced consortium will address any issues identified prior to the launch of the assessment system in 2014–15.

Operational glitches aside, the transition to new assessments will not be seamless. The Common Core challenges students and teachers to exceed our old expectations, and assessments that are truly aligned to those standards can be no different. Along with many others in the education community, we are building support structures to assist teachers as they embark upon the hard work of helping students master challenges, such as drawing inferences and pulling key information from complex passages or solving math problems through careful analysis rather than rote memorization. We expect test results from our first operational test in 2015 to look very different from what many states have come to expect. That will be a bitter pill for some to swallow, but it is a key step toward providing all students with the education they deserve and need to thrive in our competitive global economy.

Our work won’t be done when we roll out the first operational version of the assessments in 2014–15. We will continue to build new and innovative test questions, to take advantage of new technologies to more fully and accurately assess student mastery of the standards, and to pressure-test our assessments to ensure that they meet the highest standards for validity and reliability. After all, if we are expecting our students to continue to progress and improve, shouldn’t we also expect that of ourselves and of the products of our work? We hope that by continuing to do our work in an open and transparent fashion, we will gain the confidence of educators across the K–12 and higher education spectrum—and the trust of parents who are counting on our schools to help their children succeed long after they leave our classrooms.

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