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An Inside View of the New Assessments

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 8 May 2013

Even a quick tour of blogs and online discussions confirms that there is a lot of worry and confusion about the new assessments connected to the Common Core. One frequent comment from teachers is that “we don’t know what the assessments are like or how we can support them.”

It is true that we won’t know what texts will be on English/Language Arts assessments—and texts are undeniably essential in reading. But there is also some very clear information about the content and the form of the assessments, as a webinar for TextProject by Karen Wixson demonstrates. Karen is currently dean of the School of Education, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The design of the Common Core assessments for both PARCC and Smarter Balanced draw heavily on prior work for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and also a number of state-wide assessments (e.g., Michigan, Illinois, Maryland) of the 1990s. Karen’s expertise on the new assessments is extensive, having served as a long-time advisor to the NAEP and as a developer of the earlier Michigan assessment.

Karen Wixson’s presentation underscores what we know about the new assessments. The assessments involve both a computer adaptive assessment (where students read texts and answer questions on computers) and a performance assessment (where students engage in research and present information). In this Frankly Freddy, I will focus on what we know about the computer adaptive assessment.

In the computer adaptive assessment, students as early as Grade 3 will spend two one-hour sessions (PARCC) and a 105-minute session (Smarter Balanced) reading texts and responding to questions. In PARCC, the time will increase by 10 minutes per session in Grade 4 (and we are assuming that there will be a chance for a break in the 105-minute period of Smarter Balanced).

Texts during these sessions will differ in length (more on that in a subsequent column on texts of the assessments). Students will respond to questions about these texts in three formats:

  1. selected responses (i.e., multiple choice),
  2. technology-enhanced responses (e.g., moving words on a graphic)
  3. constructed responses (short written responses).

PARCC will use only the first two; Smarter Balanced all three.

The questions will ask students to be able to move beyond superficial understandings of texts. For example, they will need to be able to identify information from a text that justifies a response. The format is multiple-choice but the content requires attention to the text and also application of understanding.

The multiple-choice and the short-answer responses to questions that require deep understanding of texts have been used in many state assessments. The technology-enhanced responses will be new for students. The tasks, however, are similar to exercises in many comprehension workbooks and computer programs where students answer questions by creating charts or ranking information from texts.

What will be different for students in most states are the performance tasks—a topic of a subsequent column. However, approximately half of the Common Core assessments—the computer adaptive assessment portion—will have texts, questions, and response types that closely resemble the texts, questions, and response types of the NAEP. Prior to the Common Core, states were bringing the content and tasks of the assessments in line with those of the NAEP. That is, texts on passages were getting more complex than had been the case in the past, questions were being grounded in deeper features of texts, and responses were requiring students to provide evidence from texts. These features of the Common Core assessments were already in motion. The results of the NAEP (and international assessments which have similar features) are the assessments on which policy-makers, the press, and the public have based conclusions about how well students are doing in English/Language Arts. The critical task for educators is to ensure that students are receiving classroom experiences that permit them to excel on these assessments—assessments that capture the kinds of reading proficiencies required for college and careers.

Presentation slides from Dr. Wixson's webinar (Assessment and Instruction in the Era of the CCSS in English Language Arts) are located here.

A video of Dr. Wixson's recorded webinare is located here.