Smarter Balanced comes up short on interim exams

Smarter Balanced comes up short on interim exams

(Calif.) Even as schools reached a milestone this month in transitioning to new statewide assessments, concerns over the testing program’s inability to provide useable feedback from interim exams has provoked legislative intervention.

After adopting new curriculum standards in 2012, schools moved to a computer-based testing system two years later. Last week, the state reported an estimated 3.2 million students participated in the program this spring out of a possible 3.3 million.

But one of the key instructional features of the system—the interim assessments—isn’t performing as expected, according to Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who has introduced a bill aimed at correcting the problem.

Interim testing is considered an extremely valuable component because it gives teachers early insight into what material students are having trouble comprehending. But the current system delivers a single score on a broad block of content.

Teachers are also not able to see actual student responses to specific test questions, which prevents the kind of ‘item analysis’ educators had hoped to conduct using the new platform.

Although the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed the testing program, has promised to make improvements, O’Donnell said state law needs to specify that teachers are required to be given interim scores by content standard.

“The original statute envisioned the interim assessments providing teachers information they can use to help their students,” he said. “Unfortunately, this has not been realized and they are of limited use in informing instruction.  A key reason is that they do not show student performance by content standard.  This means that teachers cannot use the scores to determine which standards need to be retaught.”

O’Donnell, who is also chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said his bill, AB 1035, will “require school districts to provide teachers with access to key information, and will ensure that the data is used to improve instruction.”

The Smarter Balanced Consortium was one of two assessment groups created with the help of a federal grant in 2010 to develop new tests based on the emerging Common Core State Standards.

California joined a year later as a governing state, and even today a top deputy to state school chief Tom Torlakson serves as chair of the Smarter Balanced executive committee.

In addition to giving states an assessment aligned to the Common Core, the new testing system offered the promise of instructional tools only possible because of computerization.

For one, the test adjusts automatically the degree of difficulty based on whether a student answered the previous question correctly or incorrectly. Known as computer adaptive testing, the feature is intended to give teachers a more detailed understanding of student learning.

The computerized testing also benefits students with disabilities by offering different format options that can better accommodate a child’s needs.

But the interim assessments were always a major selling point of the new program.

As envisioned, schools are given the interim tests to use at their discretion at any point during the school year. The idea is to provide teachers early feedback so that they could adjust instruction well ahead of the high-stakes, end of year testing.

O’Donnell’s AB 1035 passed out of the Assembly last month and is set for a hearing this week before the Senate Education Committee.

As proposed, his bill would establish the intent of the Legislature to have interim assessment scores reported by standard content standard.

And it would require that teachers be given access to all features designed to help them use the assessments to improve instruction, including test items.