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California Takes Sides in Assessment Development Work

When a state as big as California makes a major choice about assessment, it's worth noting. And that is just what happened today: The Golden State chose between the two big consortia of states that are designing tests for the common standards. California's choice? The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

And here's the kicker: By choosing to become a "governing member" of SBAC, instead of a "participating member," California commits to consortium monogamy: it can belong to only one group. So that means it will have to withdraw from the consortium it originally chose, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

About a dozen states were practicing consortium polygamy for a while, waiting to see how the two groups' plans shaped up before choosing. That list has been whittled down to eight. See two of my previous blog posts (here and here) for earlier shifts in consortium membership.

But California was never one of the dating-around states; it had been going steady exclusively with PARCC (albeit as a participating member, which means it was part of the discussions, but didn't have decisionmaking power).

So what changed? New lead players, for one thing. Jerry Brown and Tom Torlakson won elections last fall as governor and state superintendent, respectively, and Mike Kirst, who had served on the state board of education years ago, returned to those ranks as its president. And those were the three guys who signed a new memorandum of understanding committing California to SBAC. The state board had requested that both consortia present their plans, which they did, in March (although the board itself did not have to vote on the choice; the MOU had to be signed only by the governor, schools chief, and state board president).

The two consortia, as you know if you read this space often, have different ways of approaching assessment. Key differences are SBAC's emphasis on computer-adaptive tests and PARCC's "through-course" design, in which students take various forms of assessments several times a year and roll the results into one summative result. Between them, the consortia have $360 million in Race to the Top money to design the testing systems.

Asked whether losing California was a blow to PARCC, Michael Cohen of Achieve (which is serving as PARCC's management partner) said he saw the winnowing as "part of the process" of states "getting more clear" about the consortium that's the best fit for them. "We're going to see some churning for a while among states," he said, but eventually he expects nearly all to choose only one consortium and commit to it as governing states so they can influence the design of the assessments.

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