High-Stakes Testing | Viewpoint

Are We Ready for Testing Under Common Core State Standards?

There's a bumpy road ahead on the way to a successful Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement. Already states and districts are examining the match between current standards, what they currently teach at various grade levels, and the CCSS. Of particular significance is that online tests will become the norm in the years ahead for many states. They will be developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), both of which were awarded funds in September from the Race to the Top Assessment Program to create national online state standardized tests in mathematics and English language arts in line with CCSS (United States Secretary of Education Duncan, 2010). The first of those tests are expected in 2014.

Having been involved with technology integration in schools, I recognize that change occurs slowly in education. I have a particular concern for educators who will be preparing learners to take online tests and an even greater concern for both educators and students who have had limited use of technology for teaching and learning in school.

How will a rise in online testing in states that adopt the standards affect your own practice? Should you be concerned?

SBAC and PARCC Testing
According to the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (NGA-CCSSO, 2010), SBAC and PARCC share a common vision. New summative assessments would employ a mix of test questions and performance assessments with "sophisticated multiple-choice questions, constructed-response (or 'fill-in-the-space') questions, on-demand performance tasks, and--to the extent feasible--classroom-based performance assessments." Assessments would employ universal design principles (p. 2), which means that they would be "designed and developed from the outset to minimize the effects of disability, race, culture, gender or English language ability on testing" (CAST, 2010, p. 3). The common vision also includes that teachers will be provided support materials and tools such as curriculum frameworks, syllabi, and banks of curriculum-embedded performance tasks, and a reporting system for monitoring progress. SBAC will take an aggressive approach to including computerized adaptive testing; PARCC's current plans call for a move to computerized testing in 2016 (NGA-CCSSO, 2010, pp. 3-4).

In additional details, SBAC recognized that scoring their test will involve a mix of objective machine-scored items and open-ended constructed responses scored by combinations of artificial intelligence and human teacher scoring. The common summative assessment would incorporate performance events of modest scope (one to five days) to evaluate the standards more fully. Tests could involve use of advanced computer-based simulations (NGA-CCSSO, 2010).

Upsides and Downsides of New Assessments
The upside of online testing is the potential for results being reported quickly, at least for anything machine-scored. Doug Kubach, president of Pearson, an assessment vendor, noted potential benefits to a greater use of technology in assessment in his 2009 testimony to the House Committee on Education and Labor. It will result in a "less cumbersome assessment process and faster delivery of results and allow more real-time adjustment in instruction, get greater use out of longitudinal data, and provide for a wider range of accommodations for special education students and English Language Learners" (Toch & Tyre, 2010, pp. 14-15).

Including the performance element in new assessments in line with CCSS provides a more comprehensive picture of what learners know and can do in meeting standards, a clear upside. Performance assessments typically are hands-on tasks taking learners 40 minutes to complete or up to several class periods (NGA-CCSSO, 2010). However, I suspect one downside to these is that if performance assessments take learners from one to five days to complete as per SBAC, overall test time and grading time might possibly increase compared to the current system in relation to No Child Left Behind that does not typically include such tasks. The new concern might be validity of results if any rubrics or scoring guidelines used to grade performance tasks are not done so with consistency and common understandings of criteria within those. Of course, professional development will be needed for any scoring involving humans, including for any open-ended questions that cannot be machine-scored.

Educators cannot teach one way, test another way, and expect positive outcomes.

In terms of an upside of new assessments in relation to curriculum: The inclusion of performance tasks in curriculum development is not a new idea, as they are featured in the Understanding by Design (UbD) curriculum model as espoused by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (2005). However, such tasks will require greater emphasis in classroom instruction; some schools might need curriculum revision to ensure their inclusion within content units. Those interested in this framework might examine the Understanding by Design Exchange or Wiggins' (2005) quick overview of UbD and the design template.

A potential downside to the CCSS (or upside, depending on one's viewpoint) is its impact on curriculum that is already in place at the various grade levels, as well as many current instruction and assessment practices that teachers might have been using for years. It will take time, the downside, for districts to examine and revise their long-range and short-range curriculum maps for their alignment to the CCSS. Such maps can help educators identify gaps in instruction, where repetitions occur, and places where content might be integrated across subject areas, all upsides. Maps help educators to decide what should stay and what should be cut from instructional units to best address essential standards and can assist with pacing and differentiating instruction. Heidi Jacobs, who is noted for her curriculum mapping work, has resources and sample maps at her Web site, Curriculum Designers. The Rubicon International Podcast Channel promotes the latest developments in education, technology, and curriculum mapping. Common Core, which is not affiliated with the CCSS initiative despite its name, has developed a draft of K-12 curriculum maps aligned to the CCSS for English language arts, but not mathematics.

Universal design for learning (UDL) principles are also not new, but a greater focus on them might be new for some. Certainly attention to UDL in the new assessments is an upside. UDL principles include that learners be given multiple forms of representation for acquiring information and knowledge; multiple forms of engagement with content to maintain interest, motivation, and challenge appropriately; and multiple forms of expression for demonstrating what they have learned. UDL also supports appropriate accommodations for all learners (CAST, 2010). Educators might then value Universal Design for Learning Lesson Builder from CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, where you can learn more about UDL, explore model lesson plans designed using UDL principles, then create, save, and edit your own lesson plans. Teachers will need help for designing lessons and delivering instruction related to the CCSS and organizations such as ASCD (2010) are planning to take an active role in this regard.

Tech Use and the Infrastructure
There are two major concerns in connection with the rise of CCSS online testing. First is the need to expand the technology infrastructure within schools. Second, learners need greater opportunities to engage with technologies they will encounter within the online testing environment. Given that teachers play a key role in learning and preparing learners to succeed on state standardized tests, regular technology use in classrooms will be essential for success of online testing. While there might be a surge in mobile and classroom technologies in schools nationwide (Nagel, 2010), more is yet needed in terms of the degree that teachers and students are using technology and changes in how it is being used. I base this conclusion on enlightening and striking findings from a national survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education during the winter and spring of 2009 on teachers' use of educational technology in U.S. public schools (Gray, Thomas, & Lewis, 2010). The findings from teacher self-reporting illustrate there is no time to waste to "start your engines" for change. While this is just one survey, districts might compare their own data to these findings in determining their recommendations for change and professional development.

Gray, Thomas, and Lewis (2010) found that although Internet access was available for 93 percent of the computers located in the classroom every day, the ratio of students to computers in the classroom everyday was just 5.3 to 1. This is clearly insufficient during a peak use time frame for any online state standardized testing. Yes, additional computers might be brought into a classroom when needed. Even when sufficient computers are available in a lab setting for an entire class, the number might be insufficient for all instructional programs during test periods judging by Oregon's experience with mandatory computerized testing (Owen, 2010). The number of computers is not all that is important. If computers are several years old, they might not be multimedia-capable for the kind of simulations, interactions, and digital media that might be included on online tests, as proposed. Indeed, the testing industry itself is concerned about the numbers of computers in schools that are needed for online testing, indicating it is a major barrier (Toch & Tyre, 2010). Sufficient bandwidth for Internet access might also be an issue.

Educators cannot teach one way, test another way, and expect positive outcomes. If testing is online and if learners will be expected to use visual displays, engage with simulations, write online, possibly perform calculations online, and complete performance tasks that may or may not involve online activities, they need routine exposure to those activities using technology. Yet Gray and colleagues (2010) found relatively low percentages in regard to technology use in classrooms for such activities. Only 44 percent of teachers reported using software often or sometimes to administer tests; fewer (33 percent) used simulation and visualization software often or sometimes. Fifty percent reported using drill and practice programs and tutorials, and 59 percent used subject-specific programs often or sometimes.

Gray, Thomas, and Lewis (2010) found that although Internet access was available for 93 percent of the computers located in the classroom every day, the ratio of students to computers in the classroom everyday was just 5.3 to 1. This is clearly insufficient during a peak use time frame for any online state standardized testing.

More important are the findings in that same survey that teachers reported in terms of the frequency that their students performed various activities using educational technology during classes. Teachers reported their students engaging in preparing written text (61 percent), creating or using graphics or visual displays (53 percent), learning or practicing basic skills (69 percent), and conducting research (66 percent). Only 45 percent of teachers reported that students engaged in solving problems, analyzing data, or performing calculations; only 17 percent for developing or running demonstrations, models, or simulations; and only 13 percent for designing and producing a product often or sometimes. While these percentages represent all teachers in the study, the categories into which mathematics and English language arts teachers were placed showed comparable results and in some cases even lower percentages.

Clearly, in terms of the direction that state testing will be moving in aligning to the CCSS, these percentages will need to increase dramatically, thus calling for change in schools. And all of this should be addressed before the first of any new tests are planned for implementation during 2014-2015.

It's a little scary.

Other Concerns
If instruction does not involve all teachers integrating technology, then the playing field for learners to have had sufficient school-time experience with technology use is uneven, which might then impact learners' ability to successfully complete questions of an online test. There's nothing new in saying that teachers will need help with technology integration. We've been saying this since computers were first introduced in schools. However, new national assessments involving online tests that will be developed by SBAC and PARCC make this more imperative than ever.

So, assuming education policy in the United States is heading in the same direction in 2014 when these tests are expected to be first implemented, schools will need to step up professional development in terms of technology skills teachers need and then ensure technology is actually used appropriately to the extent affecting achievement.

Just as differentiation is advocated for student learning, teacher professional development should also include differentiation.


As Gray and colleagues (2010) found, training to use technology had not always met teachers' needs to make effective use of educational technology for instruction. Teachers reported their undergrad and graduate teacher education programs had little influence as only 25 percent and 33 percent of teachers, respectively, reported that influence to a moderate or major extent. Perhaps those results might be attributed to the distance between teacher preparation at the university level and actual practice where "need to know now" might be of more relevance, or the degree that the teacher education program included such preparation for using technology in instruction. A key finding was teachers' own independent learning (78 percent) was the moderate or major factor contributing to their effective use of educational technology in instruction, followed by professional development activities (61 percent).

Practice tests will be needed so that students have adequate preparation for learning a new form of test taking to complete the computerized form replacing the traditional paper-based "bubble-form." They'll need practice with saving one's work, going back to questions temporarily omitted or to those in which they might wish to change an answer.

What about when the power goes out or technical difficulties with computers occur? There will need to be an automatic recovery feature of data, but test developers will know of that. On test day, it will not help an individual classroom teacher if tech support is primarily at the district level. Even if there's technology support staff at the school level, that staff cannot be in two places at once. I suspect the classroom teacher will need some additional training in how to handle at least minor technology problems during test day. Meanwhile some students might be getting stressed.

My concern for math tests is how the online test would accommodate open-ended math questions, such as when students might present their solution method. Using a computer with appropriate math software and input via a keyboard to express solutions containing math symbols takes practice, which would certainly increase the learning curve and potentially add to the stress of test taking. Will students be able to use a stylus for writing as on a tablet?

Bottom Line
Certainly, the CCSS will have an impact on multiple fronts in the coming years, including curriculum, instruction, assessment, instructional resources, professional development, teacher education, and accountability, all of which call for change. It will be interesting during the next four years to see how these CCSS tests are developed as an entire consortium must come together, as opposed to one state, to collaborate on the effort to select the standards to be tested and the appropriate questions that provide evidence of meeting those. The testing industry (Toch & Tyre, 2010) will also need to strengthen its online presence and overcome problems it has had to date with online testing. Without inhouse expertise, consortia will likely include their assistance in test development.

I wonder if new models of teacher evaluation will lessen or eliminate the stress teachers now feel and concerns they have about how outcomes of standardized testing are used or will we continue to hear the same concerns for teaching to the new CCSS tests? Then consider what will happen once a consortium's grant money runs out. What will be the impact on the CCSS movement, if funding to sustain yearly online test development at grades 3 through 8 and for high school is insufficient, or if insufficient practice materials are available for learners, or if 100 percent of teachers do not implement technology appropriately in classrooms so that students will succeed on those tests?

So the question remains: Will we be ready?


ASCD.(2010, May 5). ASCD works with CCSSO and NGA on common core state standards initiative. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/....

CAST. (2010, July 7). Perspectives on large-scale assessment, universal design, and universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/.... (PDF)

Gray, L., Thomas, N., & Lewis, L. (2010). Teachers' use of educational technology in U.S. public schools: 2009 (NCES 2010-040). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/....

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2005). Understanding by design: Expanded 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Nagel, D. (2010, May 5). Report: Mobile and classroom technologies surge in schools. Retrieved from http://thejournal.com/....

National Governors Association & the Council of Chief State Officers. (2010, April). Designing common state assessment systems. Retrieved from http://www.nga.org/.... (PDF)

Owen, W. (2010, July 23). Oregon school computer labs overwhelmed by demands on students [online]. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/....

Toch, T., & Tyre, P. (2010). How will the common core initiative impact the testing industry?Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from http://edexcellence.net/....

U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan announces winners of competition to improve student assessment [national press release] (2010, September 2). Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/....

Wiggins, G. (2005). Understanding by design: Overview of UbD and the design template. Retrieved from http://www.grantwiggins.org/.... (PDF)