Standards

Consortia Flesh Out Visions for Common Tests

By Catherine Gewertz — August 10, 2011 5 min read
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Filling the Vacuum

The documents were released this month by the two groups of states that are designing tests for the new standards. One group, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, released “content maps and specifications” in English/language arts. The other, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, unveiled “content frameworks” in both subjects.

Both documents serve to explicate the standards, highlighting key concepts or progressions of learning. PARCC’ s focuses on identifying the ideas that should be stressed and how they could be grouped together, and SBAC’s describes the ways students should be able to prove they mastered the standards.

The documents can guide teachers and curriculum designers, but they also provide early signals to test-makers, who are eagerly awaiting the chance to bid on building the assessments, which are financed with $360 million in federal Race to the Top grants. Requests for proposals have not been issued yet, although SMARTER Balanced recently issued one seeking bids for the writing of detailed instructions for test-item development.

PARCC’s frameworks are open for public feedback until Aug. 31. The first of two comment periods for the SMARTER Balanced specifications ends Aug. 29. SBAC plans to release draft math content specifications later this month.

Teacher Aid

Consortia officials said that member states collaborated on the papers and had them reviewed by outside groups of teachers and other experts. Both consortia view the new documents as an important first plank in a bridge that begins with the standards and is built out by an array of entities—including states, school districts, teachers, nonprofits, and private-sector vendors—with instructional materials, professional development, test blueprints, and, finally, assessments.

“Many districts are already working on new curricula, and [the frameworks] can be a tool to help them do that,” said Laura Slover, PARCC’s senior vice president.

Joe Willhoft, the executive director of the SMARTER Balanced consortium, said its content specifications serve as “somewhat of a distillation of the standards [and] loose definitions of what the test will look like.”

Barbara A. Kapinus, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association who reviewed the PARCC content frameworks, said the documents could be useful for individual teachers as they plan how to teach the standards, but also in building learning communities of teachers.

“Some of us can look at the standards and picture what our classroom would look like for a year, but a lot of people can’t,” she said. “I think it’s exciting. [With the content frameworks], I can see pulling teachers together to develop more specific units of study, filling in the texts students might read. Not just isolated lesson plans, but units of study, with ideas that connect to one another. Then they can share online all the things they’re doing. That’s a powerful kind of professional development.”

The documents are similar in ways that reflect key emphases in the standards, educators in the curriculum and assessment world noted. For instance, both highlight the importance of having text become progressively more complex, and tilt more heavily toward informational readings, as students progress through the grades.

But PARCC’s frameworks offer more of an “instructional focus,” describing the teaching needed to make students successful, while the SMARTER Balanced group’s specifications dwell more on the “evidence of learning” that will be required of students on a test, said Pat Roschewski, the director of assessment in Nebraska, which has not adopted the common standards or joined either assessment consortium.

“Both are very important, and both are needed,” she said. “Both provide information that states, teachers, and vendors will find useful.”

Some educators had expressed worry that the common-standards initiative, led by organizations of governors and chief state school officers, was moving from standards to tests without attending to the vast middle stretch that could flesh out the standards with instructional tools and other resources. They saw the new documents as helping to fill that vacuum.

“For a while, I was concerned that we were spending big dollars [to develop] tests [for common standards] without having that conversation about the universe of expected learnings for students,” said Michael W. Stetter, who oversees testing in Delaware. “But these [PARCC] content frameworks certainly help do that. I’m feeling better and better about this process.”

Delaware, which participates in both assessment consortia, revised its own curriculum frameworks to reflect the common standards after it adopted the standards last summer, Mr. Stetter said. Now the state is working on using teacher training to change instructional practices.

Documents such as the content frameworks “show the hand of the consortium,” Mr. Stetter said, providing additional, important signals of each group’s approach to the standards and tests. “Things like this will help us make a decision about which of the two consortia is better aligned to our goals.”

Out of Order?

Both the partnership’s content frameworks and the SMARTER Balanced group’s content specifications “serve as a steppingstone” to the development of test blueprints, which will yield details of how each assessment system will measure the standards, said Douglas J. McRae, a retired assessment designer based in California.

But Mr. McRae, who helped shape California’s testing system, said he is concerned that content frameworks and similar documents are being created by the same people who are planning the assessments, and at the same time as the test design is being shaped. Unless the test design follows curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and professional development, Mr. McRae said, an instructional system risks being shaped by the test, rather than vice-versa.

“In effect, this is building a formal ‘teaching to the test’ component into overall standards-based-reform systems,” Mr. McRae wrote in an email.

Ms. Slover of PARCC noted that teams made up of experts in content, curriculum, and assessment, from states, districts, and schools, crafted the frameworks. That kind of coordination is necessary to create an aligned system, she said.

“States’ priorities are to measure common standards with great fidelity,” she said. “So the way to get to that is to have the content of the standards drive the assessment and the decisions you make about assessment.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Consortia Flesh Out Concepts for Common Assessments

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