College & Workforce Readiness

Testing Group Approves Performance-Level Descriptions

By Catherine Gewertz — March 22, 2013 3 min read
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Students can score a 3 on a four-level test, but what does that mean?

That’s what one of the big assessment consortia is trying to figure out by creating descriptions of how students must perform in order to score at each level of its test. At its board meeting this week, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium approved a set of “achievement-level descriptors.” These are likely to undergo revision as feedback from item field-testing is gathered, so they’re calling them “initial” descriptors. But even at this stage, they offer an interesting glimpse into the group’s thinking as it designs assessments for the common standards.

You can review Smarter Balanced’s achievement-level descriptors on a special page of its website. Along with the descriptors, and a list of the people who drafted them, is the group’s draft college-readiness policy, which governs the conditions under which colleges can use the scores to place students in credit-bearing courses. The governing board voted not to finalize that policy yet; discussions on it will continue.

This stuff might strike some of you as familiar, since the other group of states designing tests—PARCC—went through a similar process. We reported to you in November on PARCC’s “performance-level descriptors” and college-readiness policy. And we told you around then, also, about SBAC’s initial work on its own descriptors.

In the Smarter Balanced documents, Page 8 lays out the ways colleges can use students’ scores at each level of the test. For instance, if finalized, the policy would allow students who score at level 4 to skip remedial courses and enroll directly in entry-level, credit-bearing courses. At level 3, they might be eligible for remedial exemption, but this could depend on colleges seeing additional information about the student’s work. At the other end of the spectrum, students who score at level 1 “need substantial support” to be ready for college-level work.

The achievement-level descriptors lay out the kinds of strengths students must demonstrate at each level, generally, and more specifically, standard by standard. Level 4, for instance, generally connotes “thorough understanding,” while level 3 indicates “adequate understanding,” and levels 2 and 1 indicate “partial” and “minimal” understanding, respectively.

Going standard by standard gets into more detail. In English/language arts, for instance, on the standard that covers the ability to “clearly and precisely construct viable arguments to support their own reasoning and to critique the reasoning of others,” students scoring at level 1 “can construct simple viable arguments with minimal clarity and precision to support his or her own reasoning in familiar contexts,” and students at level 2 can “construct viable arguments with partial clarity and precision to
support his or her own reasoning and to partially critique the reasoning of others in familiar contexts.”

By level 4, students should be able to “construct viable arguments with thorough clarity and precision in familiar contexts to support his or her own reasoning and to critique the reasoning of others.”

The ALDs get even more granular; keep reading into the document for more specifics.

The SBAC board also voted to approve a plan to keep it operational after federal funding runs out in the fall of 2014 (the tests are scheduled to be given for the first time the following spring). While PARCC voted recently to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Smarter Balanced chose an “affiliation” model to manage the work that continues after the federal money dries up, like scoring the tests, updating the computer-based test platforms, replenishing item banks, and conducting research to validate the cut scores. The group voted to affiliate with CRESST at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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