Common-Assessment Consortia Expand Plans

Extra Federal Funds Will Go Toward Curricula, Teacher Training
By Catherine Gewertz — February 11, 2011 6 min read
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Two groups of states that are designing assessments for the new set of common academic standards have expanded their plans to provide instructional materials and professional development to help teachers make the transition to the new learning goals.

The common-assessment consortia, which include all but five states, won $330 million in Race to the Top money last September to design new tests for the common standards. The U.S. Department of Education later awarded an additional $15.8 million to each consortium, aimed at helping states shift from their current standards and tests to the new ones.

The two groups’ plans, finalized in January, show that they intend to wade more deeply into providing curriculum resources and instructional materials to teachers than they proposed in their original grant applications. They also plan to use the funds for professional development on the new standards and test and to help states collaborate on making the policy changes needed for a smooth transition.

“In our original application, we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the instructional side. It was pretty clearly an assessment proposal,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington group that is helping manage one of the consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. With its supplemental plan, he said, PARCC hopes to offer a variety of instructional tools, such as sample tasks and model lessons, “without creating the national curriculum no one wants.”

Competition Aplenty

The consortia’s new resources will enter an increasingly crowded marketplace of curriculum materials being developed or adapted for the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts, which have now been adopted by all but seven states.

See Also

Read more about reaction to the assessment consortia’s plans here: Can the Federal Government Fund Curriculum Materials?

Among the many organizations working on such products are major publishers, such as Pearson, which recently released middle and high school curricula crafted to reflect the common standards. The American Federation of Teachers is assembling a wide-ranging “toolkit” of resources, such as model lesson plans and videos of teachers teaching particular standards, and will devise a framework to help teachers evaluate how well materials reflect the common standards, said David Sherman, who is working with an AFT task force on implementing the standards.

The union also will support collaborations among its local affiliates, school districts, universities, nonprofit groups, and others to produce or adapt curriculum resources for the new standards, he said.

Also working on a range of instructional materials are a half-dozen organizations that received $19 million in grants last year from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (“Gates Awards 15 Grants for Common-Standards Work,” Feb. 24, 2010.)

Both PARCC and the other consortium, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, envision building digital libraries of resources that would be freely available to educators. They plan some of the same types of tools, but would go about developing them in somewhat different ways.

‘SMARTER’ Blueprint

The SMARTER Balanced group plans to hire two full-time content experts to identify and collaborate with organizations already working on curricular materials for the common standards—such as nonprofit groups, professional organizations, universities, and curriculum developers—and contract with them to “adapt or extend” their products to align with the consortium’s vision, the supplemental plan says.

That process would build a range of products for the digital library, including curriculum frameworks, exemplars of curriculum units, and tools to help teachers with formative assessment, the plan says.

“As a multistate consortium, we wanted to make sure that thousands of teachers could effectively use the $16 million in support,” said Joe Willhoft, the executive director of the SMARTER Balanced group, which has 31 member states.

The library of curriculum materials would provide a “foundation” for professional development for teachers, the group’s plan says. The consortium, which has emphasized the involvement of teachers in designing and scoring its new assessments, says in its plan that it will involve nearly 2,800 teachers from across the country in choosing or devising formative-assessment tools for the digital library. Those tools will include exemplar modules that show teachers how to gauge student learning as classroom lessons are being taught and how to adjust instruction accordingly.

SBAC also intends to work with states and professional groups to build teachers’ expertise in its assessment system and teach them how to score and analyze student responses to test items. It will create, among other resources, model curriculum and instructional units aligned to the common standards and training modules for teachers to help them focus instruction on the standards, according to the group’s plan.

PARCC’s Vision

The PARCC consortium envisions a digital library of instructional and professional-development tools aimed at developing teachers’ understanding of the common standards and giving early signals about the types of student performance and teacher instruction required by the assessments, officials say in their plan.

Those tools could include formative activities, model instructional units, and resources to help teachers and principals understand the results of the consortium’s “through course” assessment, which produces a summative score by combining scores from the different types of assessments given four times during the school year.

The consortium also will create “college-readiness tools,” such as 12th grade courses to bolster the skills of students who fall short of college-readiness cutoffs on the consortium’s 11th grade test. The courses are to be modeled after those in a California program designed to gauge and support college readiness. (“Success College-Readiness Intervention Hard to Gauge,” Jan. 26, 2011.)

Most of the work will be completed by groups of school districts, states, private or nonprofit groups, or universities through a competitive-bidding process, Mr. Cohen said.

PARCC’s materials won’t make up a complete curriculum, but states that wish to craft one could use the units as building blocks, the group says in its plan. PARCC will work with states to write curriculum frameworks and exemplar lesson plans for the common standards.

The consortium intends to use the supplemental funding to involve teachers more than it envisioned when it originally applied for funding. It hopes to build “cadres” of teachers who will be trained in PARCC’s assessments, instructional materials, and professional-development tools, and can serve as “ambassadors” for them in their states, its plan says.

Additionally, because PARCC’s 25 members include 10 winners of Race to the Top grants, the consortium envisions helping those states coordinate use of that money and PARCC funds to produce a “coherent and complete set of tools from which all states could benefit,” the plan says. It also will create early prototypes of its assessments that teachers can pilot as soon as 2010-11, a process that will help teachers learn the PARCC system, and provide feedback to shape development of the final set, Mr. Cohen said.

The influx of new materials presents both opportunities and challenges for teachers as they try to sort through what best reflects the new common standards. Dottie Whitlow, the executive director of math and science for the Atlanta schools, said her district will draw on Georgia curriculum frameworks, sample tasks, and other supports the state offers, and will evaluate emerging new materials as well.

“I’ve been doing curriculum work for a long time, and it’s always a daunting task to figure out what materials to use,” she said. “There are all sorts of promises made about alignment. I remind teachers that these are advertisements to some extent. It’s up to us to determine whether these materials are a tight alignment, which is what we want, or a correlation.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students to tackle complex issues in fundamentally different ways is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Common-Assessment Consortia Add Resources to Plans


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