Smarter Balanced Assessments 6

Assuming the Smarter Balanced Assessments are better assessments, are they worth the cost?

Assuming the projected costs are accurate, adopting the Smarter Balanced Assessments for accountability purposes will cost more than five times more per student than the current Iowa Assessments.  In addition, districts may have to spend considerable sums of money to upgrade technology and infrastructure, and to add IT staff to support the Smarter Balanced Assessments.  Until the Iowa technology readiness results are released, we won’t know how much more spending will be required.  We do know that Virginia spent $650 million dollars on new technology to prepare for online testing and that at least some Iowa districts are already facing technology challenges.

Paper and pencil assessments might seem like a bargain when we see those numbers.

There are, of course, other costs that are less easily quantifiable, but that are no less important to consider.

Spending Priorities

Adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessments will require many districts to shift spending to technology and IT staff even though the community may have other spending priorities.  For example, communities may prefer to allocate limited district funds to smaller class sizes, facilities maintenance and upgrades, or new facilities for growing districts rather than spend more money on assessments.  In addition, the State has other spending priorities too, such as longer school days and/or school years and changes in teacher compensation.  Are the Smarter Balanced Assessments better enough to justify committing districts to higher levels of spending on assessments rather than allowing school boards to consider other community priorities?

Best Use of Instructional Time

Adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessments may result in students spending more time preparing for and taking standardized assessments.  [See experiences from other states reported here, here, and here.]  Children will have to be shown how to use the computer testing and technology-enhanced items software, will have to be coached on how to approach open-ended questions and performance tasks, and will have to be coached on scoring rubrics (practice your score four voices, kids!).  Furthermore, it seems unlikely that anyone affected by the results will want the high stakes (summative) assessment to be the first time that students encounter non-routine items and performance tasks; chances are that the optional interim assessments will also be administered, further cutting into instructional time.

In all the complaints about NCLB, I don’t recall anyone ever complaining that there was too much time in the school day for art, music, social studies, world languages, and physical education.  Districts ought to be able to consider community values and preferences, and the professional judgment of their teachers, in how to best use instructional time for the benefit of students.  In many communities, that wouldn’t involve allocating more class time to standardized test preparation and administration.

Choice of Instructional Methods

It seems to me that standardized tests required for accountability purposes should be concerned solely with whether students have acquired a minimum level of basic skills and knowledge and not with how the child has been instructed or the entire universe of what might be considered a “good education.”  The use of technology (or not) in the classroom, use of constructivist or direct instruction methods, use of reform/integrated or a more traditionally structured mathematics program, for example, ought to be determined locally based on community values, preferences, needs, resources, and the professional judgment of local teachers and administrators.  These decisions should not be dictated by the values and preferences of test writers.

Perhaps a combination of Hawkeye State loyalty to the Iowa Testing Program and sticker shock at the higher administration costs and expense of required technology upgrades will be enough to derail talk of switching to the Smarter Balanced Assessments.  If not, I hope for a lively public debate about the consequences for our schools of adopting the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

So, what do you think?  Are the Smarter Balanced Assessments going to be better assessments?  Are you excited, cautiously optimistic, resigned, or actively opposed to the move in Iowa to adopt them?  Are my concerns about further erosion of local control overblown?  Is there any real need for a common curriculum and standardized classroom practices enforced by comprehensive standardized assessments that outweighs the interest of local communities in participating in decision-making about spending priorities, use of instructional time, and choice of instructional methods/materials in our district schools?

3 thoughts on “Smarter Balanced Assessments 6

  1. Pingback: Commentary on Smarter Balanced Assessments Education in Iowa | Common Core Online |

  2. Nicholas J

    As a high school student who has taken the ITBS test six or seven times during my years elementary and middle school, I can tell you that these descriptions of the Iowa Testing Program that quoted in your last post are light years away from reality. The answer sheet that we use over the course of the entire mind-numbing, ludicrous week of testing is simply a duly 11″ by 17″ sheet of cardstock crammed with vast fields of tiny letters surrounded by a bubble that we are to fill in with our No. 2 pencils. Nowhere on that answer sheet is there any space to jot down a single word (albeit the line at the top for our name), say nothing of a series of sentences or paragraphs. At the end of the week, our answer sheets and test booklets are collected and shipped off to Iowa City to be processed by some arcane scoring machine. There is no locally scored section of the test.
    Schools across the state already employ a computer-based standardized test: the MAP test. This test is strikingly similar to the ITBS test when it comes to the content and quality of the questions. The MAP test does, however, base the difficulty of a student’s individual test off of their performance on previous questions, so no two students take the same exact test.
    Based on my experience with the ITP and MAP tests, I have two major concerns with SBAC:
    1: As you have elaborated on more eloquently and thoroughly than I will, will more computer-based assessments put excessive strain on already scarce technology resources? Whenever MAP testing is in progress, all computer labs in the school are closed for upwards of three weeks. As you can imagine, this disrupts many previously-planned instructional activities, and makes completing any classroom projects (most all of which are now driven by technology) very difficult. SBAC will undoubtedly escalate the severity of this problem.
    2. Will all of this talk about real-world problems, communication, critical thinking ability, etc. result in quality, accurate assessment of 21st century skills? After reading the blatant lies that the ITP makes on its website and trying out the sample questions from the Smarter Balanced Assessments, I have doubts that SBAC is going to do this effectively. The sample questions were merely interactive versions of many MAP questions, and the short answer questions that I reviewed were unclear as to what they were asking. There was even a question about music theory, which leads me to the unsettling assumption that I will be marching to the computer lab during already cut back orchestra rehearsal. I also have reservations about standardizing the assessment of oral & written communication, along with including a two hour project as part of the assessment. I do not believe that subjective skills such as these should be universally quantified and objectively scored. How are you going to compare projects and presentations across schools, districts, and states? These sorts of tasks are best left to the individual classroom teacher. It seems that SBAC is another means of shoving more assessment into the classroom.
    Despite my concerns, I believe that ITP NEEDS to be replaced. The designers of the ITBS would be hard pressed to write questions that are worse at assessing the knowledge that is actually learned in the classroom and the skills that we want students to develop in order to be successful in a competitive and complex global economy. SBAC would be an improvement over the ITP. But is it ideal? Is it worth the cost? Probably not.

    1. Karen W Post author

      Nicholas J–thanks for taking the time to share your perspective and experience. Given the technology challenges reported in local districts, I do wonder how many Iowa districts are prepared for computerized-testing. It does seem counter-productive to allow assessments to disrupt instruction for weeks at a time.

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