A few weeks ago, the two groups charged with creating assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?the?SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the?Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)?released ?content specifications/frameworks? (guidelines that can helpful inform curriculum) for public review and feedback.

Below is an overview of the feedback I provided to SBAC. A previous post summarized the feedback I provided to PARCC on their ELA content frameworks. We would love to get your thoughts after reading the post, so please take time to add your comments below.

Overall, while SBAC has produced a clear and detailed document that will help teachers begin to align their curriculum, instruction, and assessment around CCSS, these content specifications raise some concerns about how faithful the SMARTER Balanced assessments will be to the spirit and purpose of the standards themselves. PARCC has not yet released detailed assessment specifications, so we can't yet say whether their plans will align more closely with the spirit of the CCSS. Hopefully they will more clearly outline an alternative assessment plan.

Purpose of the Framework

The SBAC content specifications ?are intended to ensure that the assessment system [being developed] accurately assesses the full range of the standards.? To that end, the framework specifies five ?critically important claims about student learning? that will ?serve as the basis for the Consortium's system of summative and interim assessments and its formative assessment support for teachers.? Those five claims are:

  1. Students can read closely and critically comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts.
  2. Students can produce effective writing for a range of purposes and audiences.
  3. Students can employ effective speaking and listening skills for a range of purposes and audiences.
  4. Students can engage appropriately in collaborative and independent inquiry to investigate/research topics, pose questions and gather and present information.
  5. Students can use oral and written language skillfully across a range of literacy tasks.

The framework then details the consortium's plans for assessing each of these claims at the 4th, 8th, and 11th grade.

SBAC Strengths: Keeping it Clear

Whereas the presentation of the PARCC frameworks (reviewed here) is often confusing and repetitive, the SBAC framework is clearly written and easy to understand. They unapologetically and clearly lay out their plans for assessing the CCSS at grades 4, 8, and 12, including providing details about how the consortium is planning accommodations for students with special needs, English Language Learners, etc.

In addition, for reading in particular, the SBAC provides reasonably clear information about the amount of literary and informational text reading students should be doing at each grade level. ?For instance, the document says that ?equal emphasis will be placed on reading both literary and informational texts? in grades 3-5, but that the among of time devoted to informational texts will increase in grades 6-8 (55 percent) and that, by high school, 70 percent of student reading should be devoted to informational texts, including literary nonfiction. This increasing emphasis on informational reading and literary nonfiction reflects the priorities outlined in the standards.

SBAC Weaknesses: Missing the Mark on Reading and Writing?

The biggest problem with the SBAC content specifications is the consortium's plan for assessing Claim 1 (close reading). In short, the specifications put the focus on student mastery of particular reading skills, rather than on comprehension of carefully selected texts. For instance, the 14 ?summative assessment targets? that will be used to determine whether students ?can read closely and critically comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts? are all narrowly-defined skills, including: using explicit details to support ideas, identifying or summarizing central ideas and key events, determining word meanings (including shades of meaning), and using supporting evidence to justify/explain inferences.

The challenge is that one of the things the Common Core standards are focused very specifically on using skills as a means to an end?on ensuring that students understand and can critically analyze appropriately complex texts. By focusing on skills as the ?assessment targets,? the consortium will inevitably perpetuate the myth that mastery of skills absent mastery of rich content or comprehension of complex texts can help improve students' reading comprehension writ large. That you can somehow assess students' ability to summarize or use details to support inferences and use it as a proxy for deeper comprehension of carefully selected texts.

On the writing side (?claim 2?), there are two additional problems. For starters, students will only be asked to write one extended piece per year and the content specifications make it clear that, in fourth and eighth grade, the extended writing piece can either be a narrative or opinion/persuasive piece. Given the importance the Common Core places on analytical writing, the assessment should more directly and specifically assess analytical writing. The content specifications do indicate that analytical writing may also be assessed under claim 4, however the assessment specifications under claim 4 indicate students may collaborate for the planning/information gathering phase and the summative assessment ?would be a presentation of learning?with some flexibility of medium used: oral, visual/graphic, written or combination.?

That means that students may escape ever having written research (or extended response) as part of the summative assessment at any grade level.

SMARTER Balanced plans to release an updated version of its ELA content specifications on September 19. Feedback on the updated version is due back to the consortium by September 26.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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