The race to fix America’s broken system of standardized exams.
One problem with today ’s standardized tests is that they are virtually useless when given to children who are not performing at grade level. The sixth-grade DC CAS, for instance, doesn’t tell Voskuil much about her many students who are barely reading at the third-grade level—it just says that they’re failing. (By the same token, many students who are way ahead of the curve simply register as “proficient.”)The SBAC addresses this challenge with a new kind of test: one whose questions change based on individual student performance. If the student does well, the questions get progressively harder; if he does poorly, they get easier. These so-called computer adaptive tests are more costly to create, but the beauty of them is that they can pinpoint where students really are in their abilities. The SBAC will also offer two optional interim assessments, which will ask students to perform such tasks as making an oral presentation or writing a long article. These exercises, which would take students one or two class periods to complete, will require students to use other materials or work with other people.
Another problem with most current testing regimes is that they consist almost entirely of big tests administered at the end of the year. By the time a teacher learns that her students were having trouble with double-digit multiplication, the kids are already off to summer camp. Thus the new common core system will include more frequent assessments, which will measure skills that have recently been taught, allowing teachers to make mid-course corrections. Assessment, says Margaret Heritage, a testing expert with the University of California, Los Angeles, “needs to be a moving picture, a video stream.”
While it is still too early to describe any of these common core tests in detail, some testing companies have developed prototypes using the same kind of interactive assessment models that the two R&D teams are talking about. One of these prototypes is being developed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and piloted in a number of schools. Watching a student use this prototype offers a more concrete glimpse of what the near future of testing might look like.
In a ninth-grade classroom in North Brunswick, New Jersey, a student logs on to a computer. As if viewing an online slide show, he clicks on an aerial photograph of drought-stricken Lake Meade. A pop-up box tells him that his task is to determine what water conservation measures are necessary. Photographs and sketches depict a spillway, a river, a dam, and the lake that the dam has created. Next to these illustrations is a sketch of a sink with a faucet and a stopper. The prototype then asks the student to draw analogies between the pictures—between the stopper and the dam, the faucet and the river, the sink and the lake.
After showing the capacity of the sink in gallons, the prototype asks the student to perform a number of calculations (onscreen and using a built-in calculator) that determine the water ’s f low rate and speed, then to plot them on graphs using the mouse and cursor. It even asks the student to explain some of his choices in writing: for instance, how can you tell from the graph that the slope is three gallons per minute? What is remarkable about this test—aside from the fact that all these calculations actually feed into a simulation of water flowing, just so, into the sink—is how much time it devotes to one subject. It goes deep, in other words, and presents the kind of problem a student might see real value in solving.
The ETS prototype’s writing exam gets at the same kind of deeper learning. On this test, students consider whether junk food should be sold in schools. They must do some quick research using materials supplied by the test, summarize and analyze arguments from those materials, and evaluate their logic. The test even does some teaching along the way, reminding students what the qualities of a good summary are and defining certain words as the cursor rolls over them. The test provides writing samples, such as letters to the editor written by a principal and a student. Do these samples display the qualities of a good summary? The test asks the student to explain why. Is the writer’s logic sound? The student must prove he knows the answer to that question too. Does certain evidence support or weaken a position? The test taker checks off which.
According to ETS researchers, exercises like these are effective at both assessing and encouraging deeper learning. Teachers seem to agree. “The test improves motivation because students make the connection between the assessment and the classroom,” says Amy Rafano, an English teacher in North Brunswick. “The scaffolding is right in the test. Rather than having students just write an essay, the task encourages them to read source materials and adjust [their thinking] while writing. They have to understand where information comes from. This is real-world problem solving , and it gives the students a sense of why these skills are important.” At the very least, exercises like these mark a distinct departure from the generic prompts that serve as essay items on many current tests.
If experts agree on the need for radically different tests, they also agree on how difficult it’s going to be to implement them, especially under the timetable and cost constraints dictated by the Obama administration. Just designing the tests themselves is a monumental job: the writing exercise on the ETS prototype in North Brunswick, for instance, took a team of developers several weeks to create. PARCC and the SBAC must craft hundreds of similar exercises while also making sure they work well together.
Designers of the new tests must also decide how the items should be weighted. Should syntax be counted more than punctuation? Should multiplying fractions be stressed more than graphing linear functions? In addition, educators agree on the need for more open-ended questions, such as those be -ing tested in New Brunswick, but open-ended tests have drawbacks of their own. They are less reliable than multiple-choice exams (an acceptable response can take several different forms, whereas there is only one correct response to a multiple-choice question), and they are “memorable”—meaning they can’t be reused very often if the test is to have any level of security. Most important, scoring open-ended tests is more difficult and time-consuming than scoring fill-in-the-bubble tests. To ensure consistency among the raters, each item must be reviewed many times over. Scoring a short open response that consists of a sentence or two might take a minute—compared to a fraction of a second for a machine-scored multiple-choice item—and scoring an essay could take an hour.
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