Consortia Provide Preview of Common Assessments

As teachers head back to their classrooms, a prevailing question is how to implement the Common Core and prepare students for the associated exams—which aren’t ready yet.  Two consortia tasked with developing common assessments to support the Common Core (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) have begun to work with private vendors to develop the questions and tasks for the tests.  Member states of the consortia have already produced a range of sample test items to help the vendors get an idea of what they want, which experts say offer insights into the tests that are expected to launch in 2014-15.

Robert Linn, an assessment expert who reviewed the consortia’s sample materials, indicates that the items “really get at a deeper understanding on the part of students, not just superficial knowledge…unless students are really prepared for them, it’s going to be a huge challenge.”  He predicts that, even with the sample items to guide them, vendors will find it difficult to develop tests that fully reflect the aims of the two consortia. “They [vendors] are used to writing items for state tests that do not get at this depth of knowledge.”

A major departure from current testing practices is the inclusion of performance tasks, which are far more complex that selected-response questions.  For example, a sample ELA task asks 6th graders to read an interview with a teenager who started a charity for Peruvian orphans.  It directs them to articles and videos on specific Web pages to learn more about other young people who help those in need. The students answer constructed-response questions that require them to describe what they’ve learned, analyze the meanings of key words, and discuss how they evaluated the reliability of their Web resources. They must research and present a five-minute speech about a “young wonder” of their choice, complete with audiovisual representations.  All of this is to be done in 105 minutes.

Time is one of the biggest challenges facing the consortia.  Drafting assessments from scratch that include the use of computer-based or computer-adaptive exams, rather than updating existing tests, is incredibly time consuming.  In the coming months, both Smarter Balanced and PARCC will conduct pilot sessions on sample items with students and get their feedback, and conduct formal trials before full-fledged field tests in spring 2014.  Smarter Balanced also plans to train teachers as item writers, and has prepared a bank of training materials for that purpose.

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