Race to new tests

Competition has opened for $350 million in Race To The Top funding for new assessments linked to common standards, reports Education Week. That means less multiple-choice testing  and more “essays, multidisciplinary projects, and other more nuanced measures of achievement.”

(The Education Department) wants tests that show not only what students have learned, but also how that achievement has grown over time and whether they are on track to do well in college. And all that, the regulations say, requires assessments that elicit “complex student demonstrations or applications” of what they’ve learned.

There is money for “comprehensive assessment systems” measuring mastery of a “common set of college- and career-ready” standards. Applicants get points for working with state universities to design the tests and guarantee that students who score above a certain level will be able to enroll in for-credit college classes.

Another pot of money will fund end-of-course high school exams.

Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who leads a group representing a majority of states, believes performance assessments can improve the way teachers teach, notes John Fensterwald on Educated Guess.

The alternative is performance assessments, which require students to construct their own responses to questions. These can take the form of supplying short phrases or sentences to questions, writing essays or conducting complex and time-consuming activities, such as a lab experiment. “By tapping into students’ advanced thinking skills and abilities to explain their thinking, performance assessments yield a more complete picture of students’ strengths and weaknesses,” Darling-Hammond wrote.

“Performance assessments face obstacles of cost, reliability and testing time,” Fensterwald writes. He links to a critique of Darling-Hammond’s paper by Doug McRae, a retired publisher for the testing division of McGraw-Hill.

Because multiple-choice questions are cheap and easy to score, it’s possible to ask students a wide range of questions. As tests get more complex — write an essay, design an experiment, stage a debate — students  spend more time being assessed on far fewer prompts. Grading is subjective. Todd Farley’s Making the Grades explains tough it is for a group of people to score short answers and essays with consistency and fairness.