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A Primer on the Common Assessments

It would be quite an understatement to say that there is intense interest in the common assessments.

Judging by the outpouring of participation and questions we had for our webinar on the topic yesterday, people in the edusphere are craving a whole lot of information that isn't really available yet and are anxious about the many unresolved questions. That makes sense, of course, given the stakes that will be riding on the tests when they become available in 2014.

The presenters were Laura Slover and Joe Willhoft, leaders of the two assessment consortia, PARCC and SMARTER Balanced, respectively. They walked participants through the basics of their test-design ideas and reported on where the projects stand and what we can expect in the months ahead. (The webinar is available on a special page of our website, and the Power Point presentation is available for download, too. To view the webinar, you'll see that if you were a registered participant, you have to log in to see the archived version. If you haven't registered, you have to do so in order to see the archived presentation.)

In the hour we had, we were able to ask Willhoft and Slover only a small fraction of the questions that inundated us before and during the webinar. A sampling of the questions, though, offers interesting insights into what's on people's minds, and the broad range of people who are watching this work very keenly.

Among those listening in yesterday were curriculum, assessment, technology, and content-area specialists from school districts and state education departments; superintendents, principals and classroom teachers; representatives of major education publishing and testing companies; folks from a wide range of advocacy groups; college professors and high-ranking university administrators.

There were long-range policy questions (How will the consortia be funded once the $360 million in Race to the Top funds runs out?) and nitty-gritty implementation questions (Can calculators be used for the PARCC math assessment? What are the plans for essay scoring?).

There were questions that suggested a need for clarification of the assessment dialogue itself, such as this one from an assistant superintendent in a school district: "Is the term 'interim' synonymous with 'benchmark'?" And this one: "What is the difference between formative assessment and classroom instruction?"

Unusually large numbers of questions fell into several key areas, though. One was how the new assessments will be accessible to students with disabilities and those learning English. Another was a vein of concern about districts' and schools' technological capacity to move to large-scale online assessment.

Yet another probed the question of comparability: With two assessment systems, will you really be able to compare the performance of students in a PARCC state with that of students in a SMARTER Balanced state? Another cluster of questions sought clarification of how the tests will be used by higher education: Will they be used for admission? What about for course-placement purposes?

Answers to these buckets of questions are worth listening to for yourselves; some are more nuanced than others, and all are clearly influenced by the early stage of the work.

Another bucket of questions focused, of course, on concrete details about the tests themselves (When will we be able to see prototype test items? When will the test blueprints be available?). The consortia's timelines offered some answers there. But clearly, folks are anxious for far more concrete information than what is currently available. We'll do our best to bring that to you as we get it. But that gap between standards and assessments is not a comfortable place for states, districts, schools, and teachers to find themselves.

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