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The Smarter Balance Consortium

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Sandra Chong (CSU Northridge), Jim Postma (Chico), Mark Van Selst (San Jose), Academic Preparation & Education Programs Committee

A group of ASCSU senators, along with several other representatives from the CSU, participated in an orientation and feedback collection meeting in late February, 2013, with a Smarter Balanced higher education focused group in Sacramento.  Also in attendance were representatives from the legislature, K-12, the CCC, and the UC. The Smarter Balanced Consortium is developing a system, in collaboration with 21 Governing Member States, to serve as the standardized assessment of student learning based on the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) curriculum as adopted. This system from the Smarter Balanced Assessment is to replace the current Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) system used in California.

It was clear that the assessments were still in development.  Notable discussions included the terminology of assessment versus placement, the improved reliability of extreme scores, the possibility for a student to re-take the assessment, and mechanisms for communication to the student.  On the first point, the Smarter Balanced score is intended to be an assessment tool to determine if there is a need for additional developmental work versus a certification of proficiency.  The Smarter Balanced score is not currently intended to be a placement tool vis-à-vis determining how much and what type of developmental work is needed to achieve proficiency and/or the appropriate level of credit-bearing work consistent with readiness; the Smarter Balanced scores may not be reliable enough to be used for placement of this nature.  On the second point, the greater potential reliability of high and low scores is a likely consequence of the adaptive testing technique.   Regarding the third point, the potential for students to retake the test in Grade 12 after getting earlier results from Grade 11 testing is inherently appealing. However, thist may involve substantial costs given the faster turnover of test items that such testing would entail.  The last point on communication is that if states have differential adoption (i.e., different standards or different institutional adoption of the standards), then the communication would be the responsibility of each member state to maintain rather than relying upon a central clearinghouse.

With the preliminary Smarter Balanced summative test blueprints adopted in November 2012, the pilot test began late February 2013.  A full scale Field Testing is scheduled for spring 2014, standards setting in summer 2014, and the full implementation of the summative assessment system is scheduled for spring 2015. In short, colleges and universities can expect to receive the first set of students entering higher education with Smarter Balanced scores as early as fall 2016. Although there is no requirement that different states use the same criterion Smarter Balanced cut-off scores, it is clearly the hope that all states will do so.

So what are the Common Core State Standards, how do they relate to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), and what are some of the benefits and challenges to higher education?

Sponsored and led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers , a group of teachers, school administrators, and experts across the country was recruited to develop a single set of educational standards that all American students need to know before entering college or the workplace, known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  They released the draft form of the Common Core State Standards covering K-12 English language arts/literacy and mathematics in 2009 and for public feedback in March 2010, before releasing the Standards nationwide in June, 2010.

CCSS, built upon the best and highest existing state standards and informed by other top performing countries, was to be internationally benchmarked so that all students in US, regardless of their state of residence and school location, are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society and to ensure all students graduating from high school are college ready--prepared to enter credit-bearing, non-remedial, courses in two or four-year college programs—and career ready.  As such, the standards were designed to include much more rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order skills.

Thus far, 45 states have adopted the nationwide initiative of CCSS.  There appears to be a myriad of speculations as to why so many states have signed on to the initiative so quickly, but the more prevalent ones appear to be state’s failures to meet the benchmark on the Report Card of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the incentive of the Race to the Top  grant dollars.

Two consortia--the Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC)—each received $175.8 million Race to the Top grants from the United States Department of Education to develop technology-based assessment systems to measure students’ attainment of the CCSS, and they each led a consortium of 20+ states to develop a technology-based national assessment system to inform student progress toward college- and career-readiness.  In 2012, the Smarter Balanced Governing States recruited K-12 teachers and higher education faculty to write assessment items directly aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts/literacy (ELA/literacy) and mathematics.  Their rationale for selecting these two subject areas was that these are the areas upon which students build skill sets used in other subjects and are also the subject areas most frequently assessed for accountability purposes.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment is comprised of summative, an optional interim, and a suite of formative assessments and resources in English language arts/literacy and mathematics, coupled with an online reporting system.  The summative assessment, consisting of a computer adaptive test and performance tasks, is designed to measure students’ progress toward and attainment of the knowledge and skills required to be college and career ready.  The summative assessment is to be administered during the last 12 weeks of the school year.  The interim optional assessment is designed to inform teachers, students, and parents about progress, to monitor student performance, and to identify student strengths and areas of growth in relation to the CCSS.  A suite of formative assessment and resources for teachers, which includes a digital library of professional development materials around the SBAC system including scoring rubric for performance tasks, is designed to be made available online to help teachers assess learning challenges and to differentiate instruction.  The online reporting system is designed to provide assessment results to students, parents, teachers, and administrators in a timely manner and to help teachers use the information from interim assessments throughout the school year to differentiate instruction and to better support students’ learning needs.

The SBAC test items include multiple-choice questions, as well as extended response and technology enhanced items and performance tasks; it is estimated that these extended response items and performance tasks will take one or two class periods to complete. In addition, the SBAC employs computerized adaptive testing technologies, designed to provide individually tailored set of questions, adjusting the difficulty of items throughout the assessment based on student responses.  For example, if a student answers a question correctly, he/she will receive a more challenging item; however, if an incorrect answer is given, the computer is programmed to generate an easier item subsequently. It is also noted that some of the test items may be computer graded, leaving only some of the extended response items and performance tasks to be hand-graded, thus, capitalizing on the strengths of computer adaptive testing, offering efficient and precise measurement across the full range of achievement, and quick turnaround of results to teachers.

It appears, potentially, that higher education may reap some benefits from the nation-wide implementation of Smarter Balanced Assessment, if Smarter Balanced grade 11 assessments can be deemed as a valid measure of readiness for college credit-bearing coursework. More importantly, the potential for students to retake the test in grade 12 after getting earlier results from the grade 11 testing is a huge benefit toward increasing the number of students who enter college ready, decreasing the need for remediation, and ultimately increasing college completion rates. However, colleges and universities will need to come to an agreement on a common performance standard in ELA/literacy and mathematics to determine college content readiness, and SBAC has some distance to go before the questions of its reliability, validity, and standards setting are fully addressed.

Many challenges abound with the implementation of the Smarter Balanced Assessment in juxtaposition with the Common Core State Standards in a short timeline. Some of the challenges we, a group of senators who participated in the orientation and feedback collection meeting and the members of the CSU Academic Preparation and Education Partnership (APEP), note are as follows: (1) the assessments are still in development—at this point, the pilot efforts appear to be building the car while it is driving; (2) while many of the school districts have already begun district-wide implementation of CCSS, the colleges of education have yet to receive the revised standards and assessments that are aligned with the CCSS, e.g., Teacher Performance Expectations (TPEs) Standards and California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET); and (3) there is a potential disconnect between the assessment and the likely educational experiences of the first few cohorts through the assessment process.  

In closing, a group of senators who participated in the SBA orientation and feedback collection meeting, along with the members of the APEP at the ASCSU, would like to extend a deep appreciation for Dr. Beverly Young, AVC of Teacher Education and Public School Programs, for her continued efforts to ensure CSU faculty representation in all initiatives, be it state- or nationwide, related to curriculum, assessment, and standards setting.