The Education Department says new state assessments will incorporate more technology

Spurred on by the goal of having students graduate from high school ready for college or a career, the Education Department doled out $330 million in grants to help states redesign their assessments for the 21st century—and technology will play a key role in these new exams.

One group of grant recipients, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, will focus on formative assessments and the use of technology for testing to measure student growth over time through computer adaptive testing. It will continue to use one test at the end of the year for accountability purposes but will create a series of interim tests to inform students, parents, and teachers about whether students are on track toward meeting various achievement standards.

The other group of grant recipients, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, will focus on testing students’ critical thinking skills by examining their speaking skills, reading analysis and essay skills, digital media skills, and project-building skills. It also will replace the one end-of-year, high-stakes accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes, reducing the weight given to a single test administered on a single day—and providing valuable information to students and teachers throughout the year.

The exams will be built around the Common Core State Standards, a new set of standards created to bring uniformity to what students should be expected to know and do in English and math across all participating states.

Joe Willhoft, executive director of the SMARTER coalition, said the tests will be a “game changer” in terms of moving beyond the type of assessments envisioned by No Child Left Behind. While NCLB calls for status assessments to determine whether students are proficient, the new tests are geared toward measuring students’ growth, Willhoft said.

Both consortia’s assessments will be administered online, allowing for instant feedback, which Willhoft said will provide “immediate and actionable data for teachers to use in class,” and both are developing “sophisticated online tools and resources that parents, students, teachers, and principals can use to track students’ progress.” And having the assessments aligned to the Common Core standards will allow for a smooth transition when students move from one state to another.

While these new tests might prove to be far more useful in terms of steering instruction, some education leaders argue that the strong focus on testing and accountability that continues under the Obama administration is misguided.

“The Obama administration, although it promised change when it came to office, in effect has picked up precisely the same themes as the George W. Bush administration, which are testing and choice—and I think we’re on the wrong track,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian and research professor of education at New York University, said in a February interview with eSchool News.

Reading and math “will still be tested annually and will still be the basis for determining which level a school falls into,” Ravitch said. “These scores will determine which schools drop into the dreaded 5 [percent of lowest-performing schools], where they will suffer draconian penalties. The federal government generously acknowledges that other subjects should be taught and tested, but good educators will want to teach history, literature, geography, civics, literature, the arts, and other studies—even if they are not tested.”

How teachers should be evaluated also was a subject of intense debate in the last year. A number of states and school systems moved forward with projects that use students’ test scores as the primary indicator of teacher quality—a move that teachers’ unions largely opposed.