Federal officials are leading the charge to develop a new generation of summative, end-of-year exams that are delivered and scored by computer; focus on a deeper understanding of the curriculum, instead of just multiple choice; and can measure students’ readiness for college or a career more accurately.
“There is widespread concern that the most prominent assessments currently being used in the U.S. are inadequate and may have a significantly negative impact on student learning,” says Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) Senior Fellow Robert Rothman, author of a recent issue brief called “Principles for a Comprehensive Assessment System.”
The Obama administration aims to change that. U.S. Department of Education (ED) officials are now offering more than $360 million in the first wave of federal grants to help states redesign their assessments—and technology is expected to play a significant role in the process.
The vast majority of this money—$350 million—has been set aside from the “Race to the Top” competition to help states develop new tests based on the Common Core Standards in English and math. Another $10.7 million is available to encourage innovate test formats that are more accessible for students with disabilities and that use multiple measures of student achievement.
“Unless we take action—unless we step up—there are countless children who will never realize their full talent and potential,” President Obama said during a video address as he announced his administration’s blueprint for overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in February. “I don’t accept that future for them. And I don’t accept that future for the United States of America.”
Efforts to rethink assessment began with a series of public meetings from November to January, during which federal officials heard from 42 experts and nearly 80 members of the public. From these meetings emerged a framework for the administration’s grant competitions, which aim to support the development of better state assessments that measure higher-order thinking skills and not just multiple-choice responses.
States will have until May 27 to apply for $10.7 million in grants through a program called “Enhanced Assessment Instruments.” To apply, states must team up with a higher-education institution or other research facility to develop a system for evaluating student achievement based on “multiple measures … from multiple sources,” and one that can chart students’ progress over time. Preference will be given to projects that increase the accessibility and validity of tests for students with disabilities.
ED will hand out roughly seven grants through this program, ranging in value from $750,000 to $2 million.
In addition, states have until April 29 to declare their intention to apply for the $350 million in Race to the Top funds for creating new assessments, and final applications are due June 23. Funding will be given to one or two consortia of states to build new assessments around the Common Core Standards in reading and math, and eligible consortia must include at least 15 states. The new tests must be implemented within each participating state no later than the 2014-15 school year, ED said.
Applicants seeking these Race to the Top funds must “use technology to the maximum extent appropriate to develop, administer, and score assessments and report [on] results,” according to the agency’s request for proposals.
In developing their exams, participating states also must use “an industry-recognized, open-licensed interoperability standard” approved by federal officials, to ensure that states will be able to switch seamlessly from one technology platform to another if they need to.
Of the $350 million, $30 million will be set aside for a separate competition to support the development of common high school course exams by a consortium of five or more states.
The goal of all of these competitions is to spur the development of new tests that can provide a more accurate and comprehensive picture of each student’s progress and college or career readiness. But the grants also could hasten the delivery of exams via computer in states across the nation.
One company that has extensive experience in developing computer-based summative exams is Pearson, whose TestNav high-stakes testing platform is customizable to state requirements.
TestNav launched in 2000 and last year was used to administer 4.5 million tests in 13 states, Pearson says. The latest upgrade to the system, TestNav 7, is completely web-based—meaning students can use any standard web browser to take a high-stakes exam.
TestNav’s features illustrate the kinds of capabilities that computer-based testing could bring to summative exams. For one thing, the platform allows states to build accommodations into the testing process for special-needs students, such as the ability to enlarge the text, allow for more time, and embed audio files that would read passages aloud to students.
TestNav also can make the test-taking experience more dynamic and interactive for students, allowing them to demonstrate the kinds of higher-order thinking skills that would be hard to show in a pencil-and-paper test.
For instance, one state exam being developed for the TestNav system has students answer science questions in which they perform various tasks by manipulating virtual science equipment on the screen. They can figure out the mass of a rock by dragging and dropping it onto a virtual scale, and they can calculate its volume by dropping it into a virtual beaker of water.
And, because the exams are computer-scorable, students and educators can get near-immediate feedback on results.
Despite the promise that computer-based testing holds for the nation’s students, federal officials note there are still several hurdles they would need to address.
“Are there specific implementation challenges that we should ask applicants to consider and address in their proposal?” said Joanne Weiss, director of the Race to the Top program. “In particular, what evidence or strategies should we require of applicants to ensure that the computer-based and any needed paper-and-pencil versions assess comparable levels of student knowledge and skill, while preserving the full power of the computer-based item types?”
Tracy Freeman, director of program technology management for Pearson, said school technology infrastructure also could pose a challenge.
“The biggest challenges we face with implementation today is school infrastructure, meaning there’s just not enough computers for all the students. We’re hoping these problems might change soon,” Freeman said.
Race to the Top
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Enterprising Instruction resource center. Using data to inform instruction is one of the Obama administration’s keys to effective school reform, and technology is helping a growing number of educators accurately identify their students’ needs and deliver targeted—and timely—interventions when appropriate. To benefit fully from such a data-driven instructional model, schools need a system for tying their instructional and administrative processes together—in effect, bringing an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) approach to the classroom. Go to:
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