New state tests coming; will they change the game?

The big news last week on the national education front concerned the U.S. Department of Education’s award of $330 million for the development of the “next generation of tests,” computer-based assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Two consortia get the money: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), made up of 25 states and the District of Columbia, which gets $170 million; and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, a coalition of 31 states, awarded $160 million.

Indiana is one of 11 states leading the PARCC effort to develop the new tests, which are supposed to be on line by 2014.

“I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in announcing the funding from the government’s Race to the Top program. “For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents and teachers will know if students are on track for colleges and careers.”

News coverage generally reflected Duncan’s optimism. Stories in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor described the initiative as a major step beyond the high-stakes “bubble” tests that came to define the No Child Left Behind era.

Duncan praised in the project in a Sept. 2 speech to the Achieve American Diploma Project leadership team – a lengthy presentation that’s worth reading for a sense of the expectations being put on the project.

“I believe the impact of this next generation of assessments in the classroom will be dramatic—and that the new assessments will support learning and instructional practices that teachers have long hungered for themselves,” Duncan said. For the first time, he said:

— Tests will set a consistent, high bar for student success.

— Teachers will have timely assessments to help guide instruction.

— Technology will provide prompt feedback on how students are doing.

— Tests will evaluate critical thinking skills, not just memorization of facts.

Duncan also lauded a “a remarkable level of buy-in from colleges and universities.” In the PARCC states, he said, higher-ed institutions that serve 90 percent of students signed memorandums of understanding agreeing to work with the consortium on what it means to be “college-ready.” Lauren Auld, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, told School Matters that all seven public colleges and universities in Indiana signed the MOUs.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett also was enthusiastic about the initiative. “I am thrilled Indiana will have this opportunity to work with other states and develop a common assessment that will help prepare our students for college and careers,” he said in a state DOE news release.

Indiana can work with other states because 36 states have now adopted the Common Core State Standards for mathematics and English/language arts, including Indiana on Aug. 3. Instead of paying testing companies to write tests for a patchwork of very different standards, states should be able to, as Bennett said, “pool both resources and expertise” to develop new tests.

Here’s a note of caution, though, from Rob Manwaring of the policy organization Education Sector. He agrees with Duncan that the initiative is a potential “game changer.” But changing the game, he writes, will take resources, persistence, and a willingness by states and school districts to invest in teacher professional development, technology and instructional changes.

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