Why We’re Not Ready for Smarter Balanced

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to a training sponsored by NEA in partnership with WestEd, a philanthropic organization focused on educational service, including research and development of educational programs. The particular training was funded by a grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and conducted in part by members of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, in addition to NEA and WestEd affiliates. The goal was to develop a group of Teacher Ambassadors for the purpose of providing information to the states involved in the Smarter Balanced assessment system. We could presumably meet with administrators and superintendents to keep them on point with the purpose and appropriate use of this assessment system; NEA seems to expect participants to make sure SB is done properly at the ground level. Some teachers expressed concerns that this may be beyond the capabilities of a few dozen teachers, and I have to say I agree to a large extent.

There were roughly 14 different states represented at the training, including myself and another Delaware teacher. As this particular training was held in California, I was not surprised to see many California teachers present, and I would assume that the training held in Charlotte, North Carolina, would have attracted teachers from the local areas as well. Although this training was initially intended for work on the mathematics material, there were some ELA teachers present who were unable to make the ELA session in Charlotte. Another quick point: I do believe I was the only non-core teacher in attendance.






Some things you should know about this test:

Meeting “standard” at the 11th grade on the SB test means the student is ready to take credit-bearing courses at college. Given that roughly 30-40% of American students graduate and enter college, SBAC anticipates 30-40% of students gaining proficiency on this test. Let me be clear: for at least the first year, only 30-40% of students will earn proficiency on this assessment by the very nature of its creation.

They want this system to be used to build a growth scale of student learning from the 3rd through 11th grade. To SBAC, “multiple measures” means different types of questions (multiple choice, short answer, etc.), NOT different types of assessments. The current “field testing” assessment system is designed to take the 40,000 question bank set and evaluate it for grade-level appropriateness. As the data “drifts” over time, the more difficult questions will be added to ensure grade-level fidelity to Common Core State Standards. They are defining question difficulty by the percentage of kids who get the question correct. They differentiated between complexity and difficulty when it comes to test questions, which I think is actually important. The complexity of questions refers to the “dig deep” type of learning, wherein there are multiple steps or what have you, whereas the difficulty refers to the academic challenge of the questions themselves. This test is NOT designed to test kids outside the grade level at this time. All students will be assessed based on their placement within the grade level they are being tested for, but there is possibility in the future that the “adaptive” test situation can allow for higher- and lower-grade testing, outside the assessed grade. The test questions will then change in difficulty based on the responses the student gives. The questions are supposed to “draw on the student’s knowledge of CCSS skills and allow for problem-solving within a real-world setting”. The test will be available for paper/pencil testing for three years, which I suppose is to accommodate the lack of existing infrastructure for massive, nation-wide testing of students.

The test, although untimed, does not entirely allow for students to take the test for as long as they would like. Students may review questions in the section in which they are currently working, and they may pause the test for up to 20 minutes for breaks. After 20 minutes, students may no longer go back through the questions they already answered in that section. There is also a performance task section, and the performance task may take as many as 4 days to complete.

SBAC is offering formative and interim assessments, along with a digital library of CCSS-aligned, peer-reviewed lessons, for purchase by states to use in the classroom. There will be some from the bank of questions (roughly half) that are set aside for the standardized assessment and the rest will be made available for classroom teachers to use for interim and formative assessments. Teachers will have the opportunity to use questions from grades outside the ones they are teaching and can use them to determine higher- and lower-grade level abilities of their students. Those tests will be available in the mid- to late-fall, and although the tests will be delivered online the results flow to the user, not to SBAC. They are also building online resources for teachers to use to improve on-going assessment practices in response to the general feeling (I believe they said this was from teachers themselves) that many teachers aren’t entirely comfortable with in-class formative and on-going assessments. These resources are well worth the cost, but I wonder how many states will purchase them, and I further wonder how those states will make sure teachers know how to access and are comfortable with using the resources.

The statement that I found of greatest impact was that the purpose of the test is to determine a way for students to show what they have learned. My fellow Delaware teacher made an interesting point that the test itself is “amoral”, it is just a tool, and depending on its use the purpose can stay true or be perverted to some other focus; say, for instance, teacher evaluations. Clearly this is not the intent of SBAC.

Another very interesting thing came about as a response to two questions I asked: we have defined “college readiness” (as earning a 1550 cut score on the SAT), but how are we defining “career readiness”, and how will this test show that? SBAC has a task force that is working with professionals representing 16 career clusters to identify skills and knowledge necessary for entry-level work in that field. The goal is to develop a series of scores outside the pass/fail cut score for college readiness that will show a student’s suitability for a variety of careers. THIS SCARES ME IMMENSELY WHILE ALSO BEING A VERY POSITIVE NOTE. So now we are going to look at a ranking of careers/jobs, which may actually devalue some fields because they may be labeled as more or less intellectual (read, smart), even though the rigor can be equal to or even greater than many academic fields.

I am intrigued to continue this Teacher Ambassador program over the next 18 months, learning more about SBAC and how it evolves for use over time in response to the student data that flows in. I honestly believe SBAC is trying to “get it right” and has the best intentions, and that they really could “get it right” in terms of building an assessment that can accurately gauge a student’s mastery of grade-level content. However, I remain skeptical that an assessment will ever be able to adequately convey a picture of a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. I remain skeptical that Common Core is the best way to make our nation’s children smarter or more prepared for college or careers. I remain skeptical that teachers have the necessary support, guidance, time, and ability to make the shift from the “detail-oriented”, traditional method of teaching to the “conceptual” method that SBAC, NEA, and WestEd indicated would ensure adherence to CCSS and success on the SB assessment. I remain skeptical that our students will be best served by taking upwards of 26 assessments in every year of secondary school (I cannot speak for how often students in the elementary grades test).

In the future lies hope, but someone must take the first step to bring common sense, a firm foundation, data-based methods of accountability, and appropriate styles of teaching and learning back into the educational environment.

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