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Experts, Public to Weigh In on Common Tests

By Michele McNeil — October 20, 2009 5 min read
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As 48 states charge ahead with plans to adopt common academic standards, the U.S. Department of Education will enlist experts and the public to help design a $350 million competition for the next step: the development of common tests.

In coming weeks, top Education Department officials will travel to Atlanta, Boston, and Denver for a series of meetings to solicit testimony from testing experts, including those with research and technical know-how, as well as to hear from the public.

In addition to seeking general advice on what the next generation of state testing systems should look like, the department wants specific guidance on how testing of students receiving special education and of English-language learners would fit into any new common assessments.

Crafting Common Assessments

The U.S. Department of Education is launching a three-city tour to gather input from testing experts and the public as it designs a competition to allot $350 million in economic-stimulus money to devise tests as part of a push for common academic standards.

Visits

Boston: Nov. 12-13. Topics will include general assessment, high school assessments, and technology and innovation in assessment.

Atlanta: Nov. 17-18. Topics will include general assessment and testing students with disabilities.

Denver: Dec. 1-2. Topics will include general assessment and testing English-language learners.

Structure of Meetings

Invited experts will respond to the Education department’s questions and participate in a question-and-answer session with department oficials; up to 90 minutes will be set aside for members of the general public who have registered to speak.

Agenda Items

How should an effective assessment system be designed? How long would the tests be and in what format? How would they be scored? Should testing be based on student competency or grade level? How should high school assessments be designed?

How to Participate

Members of the public who want to participate must register in advance, on a first-come, first-served basis. Written input will also be accepted. More information is available at www.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

All of that information will be used by the department to design the grant competition—paid for through the federal economic-stimulus program—that will help consortia of states fund new, common assessments. The tests are meant to complement an ongoing state-led initiative to adopt a common core of academic standards.

The department’s strategy is a sharp contrast with how it has approached two other high-profile, stimulus-funded grant competitions: the $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund awards to states, and the $650 million Investing in Innovation grants for districts. In those cases, the department drafted regulations with little to no input from the outside, then sought public comment so they could make changes.

For common assessments, the department wants public input at the front end. But no changes will be made once the department designs the regulations that govern the assessment competition, mostly because of time constraints.

“In meetings within the department, it became clear that we were not going to do as good a job as we should without real substantive advice from experts,” said Joanne Weiss, the department’s Race to the Top director.

Collaborative Process

By embarking on what it sees as a collaborative process, the department is trying to make clear that the federal government is not dictating a particular shape to testing reform.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said as much in June, to some of the nation’s governors: “Some people may claim that a commonly created test is a threat to state control—but let’s remember who is in charge. You are. You will create these tests. You will drive the process. You will call the shots.”

The three cities where the meetings will take place were chosen for geographic diversity and proximity to testing experts—and because they were not near Washington. “We wanted to make clear this is not D.C.-based,” Ms. Weiss said.

The meetings will be held Nov. 12-13 in Boston, Nov. 17-18 in Atlanta, and Dec. 1-2 in Denver.

The $350 million that has been earmarked for assessments is a piece of the larger $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund, which was created as part of the $787 billion economic-stimulus package passed by Congress in February. Earlier this year, Mr. Duncan announced he would peel off a chunk of Race to the Top specifically to help states develop common assessments that would piggyback on the common-standards effort. (“Stimulus Seeks Enriched Tests,” Aug. 12, 2009.)

The effort to get states to adopt a common set of academic standards in math and language arts is being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, both Washington organizations that work on behalf of states. Only Texas and Alaska have not joined in. The groups are currently working on academic-content standards outlining what students should be able to master at the end of high school; grade-by-grade standards will be next. (“New Standards Draft Offers More Details,” Sept. 30, 2009).

The Education Department is trying to usher along this effort, too, by linking a state’s participation in common standards—and the development of common assessments—to the separate competition for Race to the Top grants. Participation in both efforts for common standards and assessments would give states a competitive edge, according to draft regulations the department released in July. (“‘Race to Top’ Guidelines Stress Use of Test Data,” July 23, 2009.)

If and when states agree on common standards, many education policy experts have said, the next step would be to develop common tests by which to assess students’ progress, which could carry a hefty price tag.

That’s where the department, and its $350 million in federal grant money, comes in. Although the notice announcing the “expert input” panels and the tour stops was in the Federal Register, some things have already been decided.

The only eligible applicants will be consortia of states, Education Department officials say. The department needs to award the money by Sept. 30, 2010, which means the final notice announcing the competition, and the ground rules, will be out in the first quarter of 2010. Applications will likely be due in the summer of 2010.

Experts’ Guidance

To help shape the competition’s ground rules, the department is asking experts and the public to help them color in what’s now a blank canvas for assessments. Questions include: What is the vision for the assessment system? How would it be constructed? What would the tests look like?

The goal is not to end up with more testing, but to use federal funding to spur states to “re-envision” their assessment systems, Ms. Weiss said.

In gearing up for the assessment competition, Ms. Weiss said different sets of states might take on different aspects of assessment. Some states may want to tackle the math component while others tackle language arts, or some might take on high school while another focuses on earlier grades.

Because the No Child Left Behind Act is still the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, the notice asking for expert input includes a framework around the current NCLB provisions, which include annual testing in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. With testing changes likely as ESEA is reauthorized, Ms. Weiss said the common assessments could likely be designed so that a revised accountability system could use the new assessments. The department also would allow states to modify the common assessments to align with any new requirements.

At the three scheduled meetings, the department intends to focus the discussion on specialized areas of testing, in addition to taking general input.

In Boston, for example, the department wants to hear about high school assessments, and how to use technology and innovation in testing. In Atlanta, a special focus will be on testing students with disabilities, and in Denver, a focus will be on assessments for English-language learners.

The department’s goal is to hear from approximately six experts in each panel. Although the names have not been announced, Ms. Weiss said suggestions were gleaned from the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Testing and Accountability and from the Education Department’s standing National Technical Advisory Council, which advises federal education officials on subjects such as assessments and accountability.

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Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Common Test Push Gears Up

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