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Assessing Progress Toward College and Career Readiness

By the 2014-2015 school year, states will implement next-generation assessments that align with Common Core State Standards. Here’s what principals need to know.
By Joe Willhoft
Principal, March/April 2013
Web Resources

In the future, statewide assessments will encompass online and interactive content that is closely aligned with Common Core State Standards (CCSS). During the next few years, principals will have an important role to play not only in educating themselves on the new assessments, but also in preparing their schools for them.

Consider the following example. In a fourth-grade math classroom, Jackson carefully reads a problem on the screen as he takes a test in a computer lab with his class:

Jared is testing how much weight a bag can hold. He plans to put juice bottles that each weigh 3 5/8 pounds into a bag. He wants the bag to have a total weight between 14 and 15 pounds.

As he calculates that four juice bottles can go into the bag, Jackson is not choosing from a set of multiple-choice answers and he does not have a fill-in-the-blank space to write his response. Instead, Jackson uses his mouse to drag icons of juice bottles into a plastic bag on the screen.

This is what classroom assessments could look like by the fall of 2014.

More than 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the CCSS as part of a commitment to ensuring that students graduate high school ready for college and careers. Now states, districts, and schools are focusing on implementing the standards, including developing new assessments that provide feedback on student progress, as well as resources to meet each student’s unique needs.

Next-Generation Assessments
For years, each state designed end-of-year tests aligned with that state’s standards. Now that states have adopted college- and career-ready standards, new assessments are needed to measure student achievement. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded two multistate consortia—The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)— grants to design next-generation assessments for grades 3-8 and high school that are aligned to the Common Core in English language arts/literacy and mathematics.

These new assessments will provide valid, reliable, and fair measures of student progress, and will offer states a common benchmark for comparison. They will be administered online, providing faster results than paper-and-pencil assessments. Both Smarter Balanced and PARCC are working with teachers, administra­tors, and education experts in their member states to develop new assessments by the 2014-2015 school year.

The Smarter Balanced assessment system will include end-of-year summative assessments and optional interim assessments, as well as formative strategies and practices to improve teaching and learning. All of these pieces will work together to help provide teachers, prin­cipals, and parents with more accurate, timely information throughout the year showing how well students are learning.

There are many steps that principals can take now to prepare for the transition to next-generation assessments. Principals should be aware of the advantages that administering new assessments online will offer. They can also help formulate an effective plan by leading efforts to address technology readiness, learn from field and pilot testing of assessment items, and train educators on the components of the new system.

Assess Capacity and Prepare for New Technology
Next-generation assessments will require increased and varied use of technology, so principals should work closely with district officials, assessment coordinators, and information technology coordinators to plan for the transition to online assessments. Minimum technology requirements for administering the assessments in the 2014-2015 school year have been released to member states. It will be critical for principals to closely exam­ine these technology requirements to determine which devices are eligible for the assessment system. Working with district officials on transition plans will ensure that schools have sufficient hardware and bandwidth by 2014-2015.

It is estimated that the majority of schools and districts in member states will be able to successfully administer the assessments with their existing infrastructure. Computers may be able to be repurposed for instruction and assessment, and many tablets and other computing devices will be able to administer the assessments. Additionally, the 12-week administration period of the Smarter Balanced summative assessment will allow schools with a limited number of devices to administer the assessment in shifts.

Some districts and schools may need more time for the transition to online assessments. This is why a paper-and-pencil option will be offered to schools for the first three years. This will allow schools to begin using the assessments while taking the necessary steps to upgrade their technology resources.

One of the noteworthy aspects of these assessments is the use of computer-adaptive testing (CAT), which will provide teachers with better information about which concepts and skills students have mastered and where they need additional help. CAT works by adjusting the difficulty of questions throughout the assessment based on student responses. For example, for every right answer a student gives, the computer increases the difficulty of the subsequent question; for every wrong answer, it adjusts the difficulty down. The result is a unique set of questions for each student that would be impos­sible with paper-and-pencil tests.

Familiarize Yourself With Sample Items and Tasks
A set of sample items and performance tasks are available on the Smarter Balanced website (www. These sample items and tasks were developed with the help of educators and experts and provide the first glimpse into what the new assessments will look like. Although the online portal does not include accessibility tools and features that will be a part of the full system—such as Braille, translation options, and the ability to change font size, highlight text, or zoom in—the sample items are an important tool to help educators prepare for the transition.

The samples include nearly 50 assessment items and performance tasks, including several technology-enhanced items similar to the one Jackson encountered in his fourth-grade math class. Technology-enhanced items take advantage of the use of computers to assess skills and knowledge more deeply. Additionally, there are examples of performance tasks that showcase multistep, classroom-based activities that students will encounter under the new assessments and that will require in-depth critical thinking and analysis.

As principals prepare for the shift to the CCSS, they should share the sample items with teachers, being sure to use the informational features of the sample items. Each item has detailed information about the standards and assessment targets that are being measured. In addition, most selected-response and technology-enhanced items can be automatically scored, providing instant feedback to users. Scoring rubrics are also available for constructed response items and performance tasks.

Participate in the Pilot Test
Smarter Balanced is conducting real-world testing of the assessments in spring 2013 and 2014. In early 2013, several thousand items and performance tasks will be pilot tested among a group of schools that are representative of the overall population in member states. The pilot test will help determine the validity of the items and performance tasks that will make up the end-of-year assessments and the optional interim assessments.

Schools not selected for the scientific sample can still participate, since training tests and released pilot test items will be available online. Schools can begin using these materials for their own practice and training in administering the assessments. In addition, schools will have a chance to experience the administration, scoring, and reporting systems during a large-scale field test that will be conducted across member states in early 2014.

Communicate Early and Often With the Community
Principals will have a role to play in informing stakeholders about the importance and implications of next-generation assessments. Research with teachers indicates that principals are the most trusted source of information about educational change within schools. Communicating early and often with teachers, parents, and the public about the CCSS and the new assessment system will ensure everyone is driving toward the same goal of college and career readiness for all students.

A suite of materials is available online that can be especially helpful when speaking to teachers, parents, or other stakeholders. These materials include fact sheets that give a general overview and that provide audience-specific information, as well as newsletters and updates on the progress of Smarter Balanced.

Path to Success
The hard work of transitioning to new assessments is well under way. Principals now have an opportunity to take the lead and ensure that their schools and teachers are putting students like Jackson on a path to success.

To answer the questions on his math test, Jackson will need the help and support of his teachers. His success in this class and beyond high school will depend on the hard work and preparation of educators for the implementation of the CCSS and on their use of new assessments as a tool to measure and improve his learning.

Joe Willhoft is executive director of Smarter Balanced.


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Willhoft_MA13.pdf895.18 KB