August 5, 2013 by

Smarter Balanced Practice Tests Help Teachers Prepare for the Common Core

Mursky picBy Chrystyna V. Mursky, director, Professional Learning, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

Now that school is out for the summer, teachers across the country will gather for professional development with their colleagues. For many, the Common Core State Standards and the transition to online assessments will be the focus of this work. Fortunately, educators have access to a growing list of resources and tools, including new practice tests from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Last year, ASCD released Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core State Standards: Moving from Adoption to Implementation to Sustainability, a report based on four statewide summits with educators about the Common Core and professional development needs. The report included recommendations to education leaders to help them successfully implement the new standards. Teachers indicated a need for professional development, additional time, and effective tools to help them prepare for assessments aligned to the Common Core. More specifically, they wanted “access to authentic assessment items that have been designed to measure the Common Core standards and not just repurposed from a different item bank.”

Recognizing the need for example assessment items that teachers can use for professional learning, Smarter Balanced developed online practice tests for grades 3–8 and 11 in English language arts/literacy (ELA/literacy) and mathematics. The practice tests are available through the Smarter Balanced website.

The practice tests include test questions with the same features that students will experience in 2014–15, including

  • Selected-response items;
  • Constructed-response items;
  • Technology-enhanced items; and
  • Performance tasks—extended activities that challenge students to apply their knowledge and skills to respond to real-world problems. (Currently, the practice tests include performance tasks for ELA/literacy; math performance tasks will be added over the summer.)

I’d like to take a moment to talk in more detail about performance tasks that allow teachers to dig into the Common Core and learn more about how the standards will be assessed. Performance tasks include activities that involve significant interaction of students with stimulus materials and/or engagement in problem solving. For example, an 8th grade ELA/literacy performance task asks students to review articles about whether the United States should stop producing the penny. Then, they must construct arguments for and against the elimination of the penny, citing evidence from sources. Close reading of nonfiction texts and argumentative writing are key features of the ELA/literacy standards.

The practice tests provide a preview of the Smarter Balanced assessments, but they do not encompass the full range of content that students will encounter on the spring 2014 field test or on the operational assessments, and should not be used to guide instructional decisions. However, they provide an important opportunity for teachers, students, parents, and other interested parties to experience the features of online testing and gain insight into how Smarter Balanced will assess students’ mastery of the Common Core.

Smarter Balanced is committed to providing robust professional learning tools that give educators the guidance and support to tailor instruction to student needs based on information from a coherent, balanced assessment system. This includes sets of example test questions from the summative assessment and resources for the formative assessment process. The formative assessment instructional and professional learning materials will be housed in the digital library. This online application will contain differentiated resources aligned to the Common Core for educators with varying interests and professional learning needs. It will be interactive and will allow users to rate materials and to collaborate.

Nearly 2,000 K–12 educators and higher education faculty from governing states with diverse expertise and backgrounds—including Common Core for mathematics and ELA, science, social studies, general education, gifted and talented, English language learners, and students with disabilities—will play a critical role in the digital library. Over the course of the next nine months they will identify, submit, and review resources for the digital library using quality criteria designed by 11 experts in the Common Core, the formative assessment process, adult learning, online professional learning, diverse learners, and urban and rural education. The quality criteria will help ensure that the digital library includes only the highest-quality resources.

To learn more about the consortium’s work with educators, visit the Smarter Balanced website, sign up for their newsletter, or follow them on Twitter.