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U.S. plans major changes in how students are tested

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Standardized exams — the multiple-choice, bubble tests in math and reading that have played a growing role in U.S. public education in recent years — are being overhauled.

Over the next four years, two groups of states, 44 in all, will get $330 million to work with hundreds of university professors and testing experts to design a series of new assessments that officials say will look very different from those in use today.

The new tests, which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described in a speech in Virginia on Thursday, are to be ready for the 2014-15 school year.

They will be computer-based, Duncan said, and will measure higher-order skills ignored by the multiple-choice exams used in nearly every state, including students’ ability to read complex texts, synthesize information and do research projects.

“The use of smarter technology in assessments,” Duncan said, “makes it possible to assess students by asking them to design products of experiments, to manipulate parameters, run tests and record data.”

Because the new tests will be computerized and will be administered several times throughout the school year, they are expected to provide faster feedback to teachers than the current tests about what students are learning and what might need to be retaught.

“If these plans work out, it’ll turn the current testing system upside down,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at Berkeley.

The tests are being redesigned to assess the common academic standards in English and math that nearly 40 states have adopted in recent months.

One group, led by Florida, will be made up of 25 states and the District of Columbia. Among its members are several large states like California, Illinois and New York. Known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the group was awarded $170 million.

The other group, whose membership overlaps the first, has 31 states and is led by Washington. It includes other Western states like Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah, as well as some in the East, like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The group, which won $160 million, calls itself the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Twelve of the 44 states, including Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, are participating in both groups but are expected eventually to choose one set of tests.

The two groups are supposed to work in a friendly competition, though their plans are “strikingly similar,” said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington research group, who has studied their proposals.

Both groups will produce tests that rely heavily on technology in their classroom administration and in their scoring, she noted.

Both will provide not only end-of-year tests similar to those in use now but also formative tests that teachers will administer several times a year to help guide instruction, she said.

And both groups’ tests will include so-called performance-based tasks, designed to mirror complex, real-world situations.

In performance-based tasks, which are increasingly common in tests administered by the military and in other fields, students are given a problem — they could be told, for example, to pretend they are a mayor who needs to reduce a city’s pollution — and must sift through a portfolio of tools and write analytically about how they would use them to solve the problem.

The new tests could be useful to teachers by giving them information on what their students are learning, but it might also require some mid-course adjustments, several experts said.

Over the past decade, the federal No Child Left Behind law has emphasized helping low-achieving students improve their basic reading and math, encouraging states to produce tests that have measured relatively low-level skills.

Although the Bush-era law is still on the books, two years of Obama administration policy have been leading the public schools in new directions.

The new academic standards adopted by a majority of the states, with the administration’s encouragement, already will require teachers to rewrite many of their lessons. The new tests, which in theory will immediately identify for teachers the concepts students have not yet learned, will require teachers to adapt classroom instruction to make use of the testing results.

“This could be one of the greatest challenges our teaching force has ever faced, to teach the new concepts embedded in the English and math standards, and to adapt to these new tests,” said Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a former commissioner of the arm of the Education Department that oversees federal testing.

Duncan set aside $350 million from the billions that Congress voted last year for the Race to the Top grant competition to finance the testing initiative. The department has not yet said what it will do with the $20 million not awarded to either group of states.


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