College & Workforce Readiness

Testing Consortium Crafts College-Readiness Definition

By Catherine Gewertz — November 27, 2012 6 min read
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Twenty-five states have taken a big step toward designing a shared assessment: They’ve drafted an initial definition of what college readiness means, and descriptions of the skills and knowledge students must demonstrate at each step of the way toward that goal.

Released today, the college-readiness definition and the descriptors of achievement on each level of the test are part of the work of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two federally funded groups of states that are designing assessment systems for the Common Core State Standards.

Smarter Balanced is soliciting public feedback on the documents through Jan. 15. States in the consortium will then revise them, with an eye toward final adoption in March. Even after that, however, the achievement levels will be considered to be “initial,” since they will have to be validated—and possibly revised—by longitudinal research on how students at each level of the test perform when they actually get to college.

You can view the documents, and provide feedback, on a special page of SBAC’s website.

Twenty-three other states have already completed their own college-readiness definition and achievement-level descriptors. That was done through the other assessment consortium, PARCC, which released its final college-readiness definition and achievement-level descriptors earlier this month.

Reshaping Tests, College Coursework

These steps by both groups are important, because they will shape the design of the tests that nearly all students in the country will take in mathematics and English/language arts, define what students should know how to do at key points in their education, and carry powerful signals about whether they can skip remedial work in college and enroll in entry-level, credit-bearing courses.

The Smarter Balanced work is the product of a string of meetings in the last few months, culminating in a drafting workshop in October. For the drafting, the consortium’s 21 governing states (four additional SBAC states play only “advisory” roles) nominated classroom teachers, curriculum specialists, and others from the K-12 world in their states, as well as professors, lecturers, and other front-line members of two-year and four-year colleges. Members of the consortium’s validation and psychometrics work groups, as well as its own math and ELA directors, and other subject-matter experts participated as well, according to Jacqueline E. King, SBAC’s director of higher education collaboration.

The documents show that Smarter Balanced is working toward a test with four achievement levels, unlike PARCC, whose test will have five. King said that the four-level design is tentative, however; if the test will yield enough detailed information about students to support five achievement levels, it could still go that route. Students who take the 11th grade test and score at level 3 or 4 would be deemed “college content-ready.”

Skipping Placement Tests?

What does that college readiness mean, however? This is a pivotal question for K-12 and higher ed. in every state that participates in the common assessments.

At this draft stage, SBAC’s answer is that students scoring at level 4 would be viewed as having a “deep command” of the knowledge and skills associated with college readiness, and should be “exempt from developmental coursework” in college. Those at level 3 would be viewed as having a “sufficient command” of that knowledge and those skills and would be exempt from remedial coursework “contingent on evidence of continued learning in grade 12.”

A key element of SBAC’s definition is that students who perform at levels 3 and 4 are demonstrating the skills and knowledge necessary to be ready for “entry-level, transferable, credit-bearing” courses in English/language arts or math. The inclusion of the word “transferable” is intended to address the no-man’s-land that many students can find themselves in when they take credit-bearing courses in community college that don’t transfer to four-year institutions.

States in the Smarter Balanced drafting workshop for these documents decided not to name specific credit-bearing courses for which students can qualify by scoring a 3 or 4, King said, to allow colleges to examine their own curricula and decide for themselves. In math, however, the draft document was constructed specifically to spark feedback on a key question: Should students qualify for entry-level, credit-bearing college courses in statistics as well as other kinds of math? The draft says students scoring at level 3 or 4 would qualify for courses in statistics as well, but that could be revised once feedback is evaluated, King said.

Another key element of Smarter Balanced’s college-readiness definition lies in what it doesn’t say. Unlike PARCC’s definition, it doesn’t say that students scoring a 3 or a 4 are exempt from placement tests. It says they are exempt from remedial coursework.

King explained that states sought to “support the movement to multiple measures,” and honor the fact that colleges might want to use other information, such as grades, high school coursework, admissions-test scores, in making decisions about which credit-bearing courses to place students in. So while students scoring a 3 or 4 are exempt from remedial work, they might still have to take a college’s placement test, King said.

Students scoring at level 2 and 1 have a “partial” or “minimal” command of the necessary skills and need additional support before they can be considered college-ready.

Like PARCC, Smarter Balanced is careful to state in its college-readiness definition that its assessment will measure only the academic skills and knowledge students need for college. This is a nod to the growing recognition that a long list of other factors—from family educational background to persistence and good study habits—exert a powerful effect on higher education success.

Drilling Down to the Grade-by-Grade

Smarter Balanced’s achievement-level descriptors are far more detailed at this point than are PARCC’s. (PARCC is still working on its grade-by-grade descriptors.) The SBAC document breaks down the overall goals (“claims,” or statements of what students can do) into specific test targets for each grade and describes what performance on those targets should look like.

In English/language arts, for instance, the test seeks to make a claim about students’ skills in each of four areas: reading, writing, research, and speaking-and-listening. In math, the areas are problem-solving, communicating reasoning, modeling and data analysis, and concepts and procedures. Within each claim are numerous areas, or “targets,” the test seeks to mine, and a description of what performance would look like at each of the four achievement levels.

In language arts, for instance, claim 4 is that students can “engage in research and inquiry to investigate topics, and to analyze, integrate, and present information.”

For that claim, 3rd grade students who score at the lowest level of the test should “be able to rely on limited research/inquiry methods to produce a perfunctory or unpersuasive explanation of a topic.” To reach the level 2 threshold, a student should be able to “rely on research/inquiry methods to produce an overgeneralized or inconsistent explanation of a topic.” Level 3 would require him to use research to “explore a topic and analyze findings in a reasonable and thorough exploration of a topic.” Scoring at level 4 would require using research “as a way to engage with a topic; [students] analyze, integrate, and present findings in a persuasive and sustained exploration of a topic.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.