Teachers of the Year: Online Assessments Improvement over Previous State Tests

When the best teachers in the country compare the online assessments built around the Common Core State Standards to prior state assessments, they've agreed that the new tests from PARCC and Smarter Balanced are better. That's the conclusion in a new report issued by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. This organization is made up of people named the most excellent teachers in their states.

The network assembled a group of 23 former state teachers of the year and finalists from multiple states and split them into two groups. One group reviewed the fifth grade reading and math assessments from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) as well as two previous state assessments: the ISAT from Illinois and NJASK from New Jersey. Both of those states are part of the PARCC consortium. The other group reviewed the fifth grade reading and math assessments from Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and two prior assessments from states that are now part of that consortium: DCAS from Delaware, and NECAP from New Hampshire.

"What we found is clear," noted the subsequent report issued by the network. "There was consensus across participating teachers that the new consortia assessments — both PARCC and Smarter Balanced — represent an improvement and the right trajectory."

They offered five areas in which the consortia tests were a cut above the state-developed exams:

  • The new consortia assessments better reflect the range of reading and math knowledge and skills that all students should master;
  • They include test items that better reflect the "full range of cognitive complexity" in a balanced way. Prior assessments were characterized by the evaluators as "lacking questions that demanded higher levels of cognitive complexity from students";
  • Questions were asked in ways that better aligned with the kinds of teaching and learning practices that occur in the very best classrooms;
  • The new consortia assessments provide information relevant to a wide range of performers, especially the moderate and high-performers; and
  • While the new consortia assessments are more rigorous and demanding, they are grade-level appropriate, and even more so than prior state tests.

As some of the evaluators expressed, Smarter Balanced is more challenging, but still worthwhile. "It allows us to be honest about a student's progress and have a better picture of his or her performance," said Kristie Martorelli, the 2012 Arizona Teacher of the Year, and one of the reviewers on the Smarter Balanced panel, in a prepared statement. "That's a better conversation starter for teachers and parents to determine the right path forward so each child can succeed."

The evaluators emphasized that stakeholders needed to be patient as students and teachers move through the transition. "The new tests may be quite difficult for many students and initial results may be disappointing. This may be especially true in communities that have grown accustomed to high test scores year after year," the report stated. "However, [the evaluators] did not see this as a reason to retreat. To the contrary, these teachers understood that increasing expectations is the road to improved outcomes."

One evaluator quoted in the report compared the new tests to baseball: "You may look good playing baseball in the A League when you are winning all the time, so you move up to AAA. And you [lose], because the caliber of player you are up against is suddenly so much higher. But that isn’t a reason to drop back and play in A again — just to look good. No, you stay in AAA, your skills improve from playing at a higher standard, and soon you are winning again in the higher leagues."

The study was undertaken with the help of the EducationCounsel, an education consulting firm and funded by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

The report, "The Right Trajectory: State Teachers of the Year Compare Former and New State Assessments," is available on the National Network of State Teachers of the Year Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.