Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

New Tools Help Track Common-Core Learning

By Catherine Gewertz — November 09, 2015 8 min read
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What do PARCC and Smarter Balanced offer in addition to their year-end tests? If you gave teachers across the country a pop quiz on that question, you’d probably get a lot of bewildered looks.

Many educators don’t know about the teaching tools that those two groups of states built as part of their projects to design end-of-year assessments for the Common Core State Standards. But when the U.S. Department of Education awarded the consortia $360 million five years ago, it sought more than summative assessments in English/language arts and math. It demanded “systems” of assessment that allowed teachers to gauge student learning in real time and adjust instruction accordingly.

In response, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium created online libraries of instructional tools for teachers to use. They include sample lessons, instructional videos, grading rubrics, and interim tests. Smarter Balanced’s resources made their debut last October, but word is still spreading about their availability. PARCC needed another year to finish its nonsummative resources. It anticipates releasing them this fall.

Bernadette Maes, a New Mexico reading coach who helped develop PARCC instructional tasks for grades K-2, said that teachers who piloted the tasks often found that they brought the abstract academic standards to life.

“The kinds of big ‘a-ha!’ moments that we heard a lot were, ‘Oh, so that’s what the standard says!’ or, ‘So that’s what it means for a student to write at that grade level!’ ” she said. “It gave them clarity about what they needed to do in the classroom.” (See a comparison of different assessment types.)

For teachers, formative-assessment tools are far more important than summative tests because they offer real-time insight into students’ understanding, said Marianne Perie, the director of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas, which researches and builds state testing systems.

But in the past, teachers have had to contend with fragmented assessment systems, since states typically hired one vendor to build a summative test, and their districts bought interim tests from another, then perhaps hired other experts to build formative tasks, she said. The adoption of the common core by 40-plus states, and the development of a suite of tests and tools to match, opens up better-aligned options, Perie said.

Access to Assessment Content

That promise, however, isn’t available to all states, despite the urging of the federal Education Department.

In its original notice inviting applications in 2010, the department said that “assessment content” developed with federal grants should be “widely available, including to states that are not part of consortia.” The agency clarified in 2013 that PARCC and Smarter Balanced “may consider charging a reasonable amount” to cover the costs they incur to make materials available.

That isn’t happening this school year, however, since both PARCC and Smarter Balanced are restricting access to member states. PARCC officials said PARCC is working out a price for nonconsortium states that want to use its online resources in 2016-17, but Smarter Balanced officials said they have no plans to extend access to nonmembers.

For this academic year, PARCC’s 11 members get both the summative tests and the instructional resources, including formative-assessment activities, for one price. Smarter Balanced uses a tiered-price structure. Two of its 18 members paid for the summative assessments only in 2014-15. The other 16 are paying $3.35 more per student to get the online instructional resources as well.

Formative Assessment Resources

The Smarter Balanced digital library is stocked with more than 2,600 resources and is still growing. Instructional videos, lesson and unit plans, and other tools have been submitted by teachers who have found them useful in their own practice or they are resources that teachers have created themselves. The collection has been curated by the consortium’s content experts. About 5 percent of the resources were commissioned by outside organizations, such as Amplify, which built interactive modules for the digital library, and Arizona State University, which designed modules for teachers who work with students who have disabilities.

Formative Assessment Resources

Below are links to two interactive modules from Smarter Balanced’s digital library. Click on each image to interact with the modules.

This module is designed to help 8th grade teachers teach the Pythagorean theorem:

This module shows kindergarten teachers how to help students clarify their own learning goals:

SOURCE: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

When educators sign in to the Smarter Balanced portal, they see a thumbnail display of some highlighted resources, each with a brief summary. Some have green checkmarks, connoting high user ratings. Teachers can search the library by grade level, subject, the standards they’d like to cover, or by the highest-rated or most-viewed tools. Like shoppers who post product reviews on Amazon, teachers can read their colleagues’ reviews of the videos and lesson plans and post their own.

Some resources have a broad focus, such as a module that details strategies for teaching speaking and listening skills, or one that helps teachers understand how to use various types of assessments. Others zero in on “smaller grained stuff,” such as guidelines for grading 3rd grade narrative writing, said Chrys V. Mursky, Smarter Balanced’s director of instructional supports.

One animated instructional module shows an 8th grade math teacher leading a discussion about the Pythagorean theorem. She sees from her students’ work that they don’t fully grasp how irrational numbers can be used to express the lengths of triangles’ sides. The segment follows her as she pinpoints this misunderstanding and facilitates a discussion among the students to help bring light to the idea.

The 10-minute module was designed to show how a teacher can identify and act on evidence of students’ learning, a key principle of formative assessment.

Teachers also have access to online discussion forums, where they can share their experiences with the resources. There are also two kinds of interim tests they can use: one that’s meant to mirror the year-end summative test, and shorter “block” interims that focus on specific ideas or clusters of standards.

The formative resources aren’t intended for use as summative-test preparation, Mursky said. They’re meant to help educators “generate questions” about students and where they are in their learning.

“A lot of people think of formative assessment as a thing, an event,” she said. “They use the term ‘formative’ because it’s associated with the classroom, as opposed to an end-of-year, large-scale test. We work really hard to make sure people understand that that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the instructional process.”

PARCC’s Formative Assessment Portal

PARCC members will be able to access its online resources through a portal called the Partnership Resource Center. In the center, teachers will be able to use a bank of released test questions to build interim assessments. They’ll also have access to diagnostic assessments for students in grades 2-8, formative tasks for K-2 students, and modules designed to help them teach speaking and listening skills in grades K-12.

One formative-assessment module guides kindergarten teachers through a read-aloud exercise. It supplies the storybook, Mouse Count, and offers examples of the kinds of questions teachers can ask to probe pupils’ comprehension and foundational skills in the counting fable about mice who escape a wily snake. The module includes ideas for writing exercises, and samples of student work, annotated to help teachers evaluate their students’ progress.

The accompanying checklists and rubrics are “focused on descriptive feedback, rather than on grading,” said Bonnie Hain, PARCC’s director of English/language arts. “The focus isn’t on how can I give this student a grade. It’s on capturing where the student is in their learning toward a particular standard, and shaping future instruction, and the feedback I can give students and parents to help students progress in their next steps.”

Another tool in the PARCC library will be a bank of released test questions. Teachers can assemble those into interim tests or use them formatively in classroom work, said Doug Sovde, the consortium’s math director.

PARCC’s online resources are curated by content experts from PARCC states. Many were crafted by companies or organizations with the help of teachers. Pearson, for instance, designed the diagnostic assessments for grades 2-8, while the Council for Aid to Education created the speaking and listening tools, Sovde said.

The consortium originally planned to produce 12th grade “bridge courses” to help 11th graders bolster skills before their senior year, as well as model instructional units. But a tight timeline and budget made that impossible, Sovde said. The consortium will crowdsource those tools instead, he said.

Midcourse Adjustments

How widely the PARCC and Smarter Balanced instructional resources will be used is an open question. Several educators said that rising antipathy toward testing could influence how teachers see the consortia’s teaching tools.

“My teachers don’t view state tests as a positive instructional experience, so I’m not sure that any formative tools associated with them would be their first choice innately,” said Eric Conti, the superintendent of schools in Burlington, Mass., which, like other districts in the Bay State, had the choice of administering either PARCC or the state’s previous test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.

Conti is spreading the word among his teachers about PARCC’s instructional resources and says they’ll be the judge of their quality and utility. But he said that his staff has “already invested decades of effort” to build their own formative resources linked to the district’s curriculum, so he doesn’t foresee a huge uptake on PARCC’s offerings.

Stephanie Cotterill, a West Virginia English/language arts teacher who helped develop tools for Smarter Balanced, said she recommends them to colleagues at Wildwood Middle School in Shenandoah Junction.

“I know the rigor that goes into those materials before they get in there,” she said. “They [her colleagues] don’t accept things that aren’t well thought out and developed.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Tools Help Track Common-Core Learning

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