A farewell to “meaningful” tests?

Merry Christmas, everyone. I’ve finally got most of my leftovers simmering in soup pots, so it’s back to blogging.

I’ve written before about Utah’s decision to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – a decision driven mostly by growing concern over the common core standards.

I had, and still have, mixed feelings about Utah’s abandonment of this project. Adopting the standards and abandoning the tests strikes me as a very odd compromise: why pursue curriculum changes that generate expense and bother without pursuing serious accountability? Moreover, the Consortium was supposedly developing more in-depth and meaningful tests, which in my view are sorely needed. Finally, a common test potentially offers economies of scale and comparability among states.

But the promise of more meaningful tests may be fading anyway, as the Consortium faces some testing realities. To use some of the economics lingo that I teach my students, the opportunity costs of testing are high. Economists measure the cost of a good or service by what we must forego, or give up, to acquire that good or service. Testing can help teachers tailor and improve instruction – but it also devours instructional time.

As Education Week reports,

A group that is developing tests for half the states in the nation has dramatically reduced the length of its assessment in a bid to balance the desire for a more meaningful and useful exam with concerns about the amount of time spent on testing.

The decision by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium reflects months of conversation among its 25 state members and technical experts and carries heavy freight for millions of students, who will be tested in two years. The group is one of two state consortia crafting tests for the Common Core State Standards with $360 million in federal Race to the Top money.

From an original design that included multiple, lengthy performance tasks, the test has been revised to include only one such task in each subject—mathematics and English/language arts—and has been tightened in other ways, reducing its length by several hours.

The final blueprint of the assessment, approved by the consortium last month now estimates it will take seven hours in grades 3-5, 7½ hours in grades 6-8, and 8½ hours in grade 11.


The article continues (I’m quoting at length since non-subscribers may not be able to gain access to the ful article):

The evolution of the Smarter Balanced assessment showcases a persistent tension at the heart of the purpose of student testing, some experts say.

“Is it about getting data for instruction? Or is it about measuring the results of instruction? In a nutshell, that’s what this is all about,” said Douglas J. McRae, a retired test designer who helped shape California’s assessment system. “You cannot adequately serve both purposes with one test.”

That’s because the more-complex, nuanced items and tasks that make assessment a more valuable educational experience for students, and yield information detailed and meaningful enough to help educators adjust instruction to students’ needs, also make tests longer and more expensive, Mr. McRae and other experts said.

What Smarter Balanced did, he said, was to compromise on obtaining data to guide instruction in order to produce a test that measures the results of instruction. As a strong supporter of accountability, that’s an approach Mr. McRae supports. It’s also crucial to have data that guide day-to-day instruction, he said, but that should come from separate formative and interim tests.

Ouch. Surely we need tests both to measure whether students are learning – accountability – and to help teachers improve the effectiveness of instruction. I wonder, however, if we can rely rely on one big-ticket test to do both, especially when teachers may not receive information early enough to affect instruction (at least with this year’s students.) Isn’t it possible that smaller, more frequent tests would be more helpful for instruction . . . while end-of-year tests would provide useful accountability measures? Just a thought.


  1. Howard Beale

    When Utah teachers have a fighting chance to teach with less than 40 students in a secondary class and less than 30 students in an elementary class, then it might be fine to discuss tests and using them to evaluate teachers and schools. We have reached in our state in far too many classrooms in far too many schools the precipice of not teaching but just managing students because of the sheer volume of students we shove at teachers. If we want teachers to teach and we want to evaluate teachers on teaching, I think we need to fund education necessary then we can talk about standards and tests…

  2. Stuart Shumway

    I have found that math assessments that provide immediate feedback do not rob the students of instruction time, but provide another avenue for learning while providing information to the teacher. In order to keep students from cheating from their neighbor’s computer screen, questions can be written as formulas, and the numbers can be different for each student. I am for quarterly math assesments, and would suggest that immediate feedback helps them have less of a “footprint”.

  3. Stephanie Sawyer

    I think of testing as part of instructional time; it’s how I determine if instruction is producing the outcomes I want. I understand the dilemma here, though, Mary; most standardized testing results do not allow the teacher to change course until the next school year, and that’s assuming the results are disseminated to the actual classroom teachers from that high a level.
    At my school, I think we manage to test for both purposes well. We have the ongoing formative assessments during the semester, and teachers have the autonomy to choose how much weight to give those assessments as far as grading. But at the end of the semester, our students must sit a final exam which is where the accountability comes in; the results of these exams are at least 20% of the student’s semester grade.
    Do these in any way correlate to high-stakes standardized tests? Maybe not right now, but we are in the process of trying to develop more challenging tests in the hope that an increase in rigor at our end will pay off with higher ACT scores down the road.

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