Smarter Balanced Assessments 29

The Assessment Task Force issued recommendations last week, including a recommendation that the state adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments as the statewide assessment of student progress in mathematics and reading.

The Gazette, Radio Iowa, and Ed Week have covered the recommendations.

Today, Matt Townsley asks:

Before I take a stab at answering Townsley’s question, some background clarifications might be in order.

First, contrary to Ed Week’s coverage, the Assessment Task Force reviewed the Next Generation Iowa Assessments, in addition to the Smarter Balanced Assessments, not the current Iowa Assessments.

Second, Iowa schools are required to assess science as well as mathematics and reading. The Smarter Balanced Assessments do not include a science component. The Next Generation Iowa Assessments, like the Iowa Assessments, will offer a science and social studies component.

Third, the Smarter Balanced Assessments are expected to take more than twice as long as the Next Generation Iowa Assessments (excluding science and social studies):

–                    Smarter Balanced     NGIA (ELA/Math only)     NGIA (plus science/social studies)

grades 3-5           7 hours                      3 hours                                  5 hours

grades 6-8           7.5 hours                   3 hours                                  5 hours

grades 9-11         8.5 hours                   3 hours                                  5 hours

Which brings me to my first suggestion for possible reasons other than cost to reject the Smarter Balanced Assessments:

Time to Administer

The Washington Post published a guest column earlier this month (HT: McLeod) comparing the length of required assessments for New Jersey 4th graders to the length of the New Jersey bar exam. Spoiler alert: the New Jersey bar exam, at only eleven hours and fifteen minutes, is actually fifteen minutes shorter than the 4th grade exams.

I suppose Iowa can afford to more than double the amount of time spent testing mathematics and reading because our bar exam clocks in at twelve hours or so. And perhaps third grade students should get to work on developing the assessment stamina to be on track to acquire the career readiness to sit for the bar exam, but questions remain. Is data from Smarter Balanced Assessments so much better than NGIA to justify requiring students, some as young as eight years old, to sit for such lengthy assessments? (This question could take years to answer, assuming anyone even bothers to look for the answer.) Are the Smarter Balanced Assessments a better use of instructional time than other instructional programming?

In any case, if seven hours to eight-and-a-half hours doesn’t seem like too much testing, remember that it doesn’t include the required science assessment and, if your school decides to administer the practice exams, you can double those times to fourteen to seventeen hours.

Technology Readiness

Some of the news coverage hints at this issue, but the evidence suggests that Iowa is not ready for statewide online assessments. The Iowa field tests went well but, with only an eight percent participation rate and many schools only testing one or two grade levels, some in only one subject area, they could hardly be said to have put Iowa’s school technology infrastructure to the test.

In 2013, it was estimated that “a need exists for greater bandwidth in about one-third of Iowa school districts.” In addition, some 1:1 districts were already exceeding ICN bandwidth capacities. Remember that the Legislature did not pass the broadband bill and it is unclear whether any progress has been made.

It might also be worth considering Michigan’s experience with Smarter Balanced Assessments, recently reported in an Ed Week article on waivers of state requirements for online testing:

In Michigan, a report released earlier this year found that while nearly 80 percent of schools did meet the “minimum” technology-readiness standards put forward by Smarter Balanced—one of the two main consortia creating online assessments aligned to the common core—far fewer school systems met the consortium’s “recommended” specification.

And even the recommended standards represented a lower tech threshold than what state officials believed would be necessary, director of the state’s office of standards and assessment Vince Dean told Cavanagh in an interview following the report’s release.

Over the past two years, Michigan has spent more than $100 million to support district technology improvements and professional development efforts, including those surrounding the transition to online testing.

So, we don’t know with any certainty how close to or far from being ready for statewide online assessments we are and we are running short of time to prepare. If the Legislature takes action in the upcoming session (spring 2015), we would essentially have just over one year (to fall 2016) to prepare all Iowa schools for online assessments–assuming that we want all schools to have an equal opportunity to use the Smarter Balanced Assessments interim assessments throughout the 2016-2017 school year in preparation for online administration of the summative assessments in spring 2017.


If we can’t resolve the technology readiness issues, students across the state could have very different testing experiences, perhaps to the point that results can’t fairly be compared. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Some students must take a longer, non-adaptive, paper-and-pencil format of the assessment in the spring of 2017 while other students take the computer adaptive version.
  • Some students are bused to the community college or other locations and must sit for the assessments in one or two sessions while other students take the assessments in their own classroom or school computer lab in shorter sessions spread out over two weeks.
  • Some students experience slow loading times or interruptions of the test due to insufficient bandwidth while others students take the assessments without interruption.

How about some other possible inequities?

  • Some students experience cuts in art, music, world languages, and other instructional programming and/or larger class sizes to pay for the assessments and the technology required to support them while others students see no changes in instructional programming or class sizes.
  • Some students experience reductions in art, music, or recess to make time for technology instruction to prepare them for typing in constructed responses and otherwise navigating the assessment software while other students, with better access to technology outside of school, see no changes in instructional programming.


Those last few possible inequities are in some sense really about priorities. There are some eager to see statewide online assessment force districts into 1:1 computing environments or at least offering much more technology in the classroom. However, not everyone agrees that this should be a priority or that more technology is the answer to the question “what is a good (or great) education?” See any number of articles about Steve Jobs not giving his own children iPads. Or see StepfordTO’s thoughtful blogpost The Debate About Digital Literacy: Moral Panics, Contradictions, and Assumptions. Here’s a taste (but please go read the whole thing):

My own anxiety as a parent has to do with what the anxious rhetoric surrounding digital literacy can lead us to do. And by us, I mean parents and schools and governments. One thing that it has led us to do is to spend a lot of money on technology for schools, even though the research to date has failed to show a significant impact (good or bad) on learning. I’m not opposed to technology in schools, but when the provincial government announces that it will be spending 150 million dollars to put iPads in classrooms, while it’s making cuts elsewhere in education, it gives me pause.

If seven and eight year olds are going to be pushed to learn how to type, not because it has any value to the seven or eight year olds, but simply to prepare them for the Smarter Balanced Assessments, count me out.

Ask me to choose between higher percentage of Supplemental State Aid or money to pay for the Smarter Balanced Assessments, I’ll pick the Supplemental State Aid to support the art, music, and other great instructional programming that makes for a great education.

Ask me to choose between long-needed air conditioning upgrades and building projects to finally retire portable classrooms in use for decades and technology for assessments, I’ll pick the air conditioning and the building projects.

Which I suppose brings us right back to cost as a reason for rejecting the Smarter Balanced Assessments, but in the end there’s no avoiding the choices the costs will force us to make.