New tests take longer, but are they better?

You are a congresswoman’s aide. Using the articles, videos and charts provided, write an essay advising her whether to support or oppose a nuclear power plant in her district.

New Common Core tests include “performance tasks” like this example from the Smarter Balanced Consortium, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. Is it worth the time, cost and unreliability it adds to testing?

. . . in addition to the multiple-choice-heavy parts of the tests, which can take up to almost five hours (depending on the test and grade level), the performance tasks add up to 4 ½ hours to the Smarter Balanced tests and 6 ½ hours to the PARCC tests.

Smarter Balanced performance tasks include 30-minute classroom activities — one for the math section and one for the English section — in which students, for example, learn about and discuss nuclear power before they start the writing assignment.

The 30-minute activities are supposed to eliminate the benefits of prior knowledge of the subject. But some students will get better teaching or a fuller discussion of the subject, concedes Andrew Latham,  director of Assessment & Standards Development Services at WestEd, a nonprofit that worked with Smarter Balanced and PARCC on the new tests. 

“It’s asking students to think evaluatively and analytically about the texts they are given,” said Justin McGehee, who teaches English at Cesar Chavez High School in Stockton, California. “But with all of that writing, the scoring is very wide open.”

Performance tasks “are tremendously difficult to score, you get better statistics without open-ended questions so there are always trade-offs,” Latham says.

New ‘core’ test will be (a bit) shorter, simpler

One group developing tests aligned to new standards will make exams shorter and simpler — but less capable of providing detailed feedback on students’ performance, reports Ed Week.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups crafting tests for the Common Core State Standards, will include only one lengthy “performance task” in each subject—mathematics and English/language arts. The test will include multiple choice, short response and “technology-enhanced” questions. But it won’t be all that quick: SBAC estimate seven hours of testing in grades 3-5, 7½ hours in grades 6-8, and 8½ hours in grade 11.

A performance item might ask students to “tackle longer, more complex math problems and write essays based on reading multiple texts,” reports Ed Week.

In this version, students will evaluated on  math concepts and procedures, communicating reasoning, and problem-solving/modeling/data analysis and on reading, writing, listening, and research.

“Is it about getting data for instruction? Or is it about measuring the results of instruction? In a nutshell, that’s what this is all about,” said Douglas J. McRae, a retired test designer who helped shape California’s assessment system. “You cannot adequately serve both purposes with one test.”

That’s because the more-complex, nuanced items and tasks that make assessment a more valuable educational experience for students, and yield information detailed and meaningful enough to help educators adjust instruction to students’ needs, also make tests longer and more expensive, Mr. McRae and other experts said.

Separate formative and interim tests can help teachers figure out what students need to learn, while the end-of-the-year test is used for accountability, say SBAC designers. Teachers will be able to use an online bank of test questions and tasks and a bank of “formative” tools to judge students’ learning.