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Should Consortium Tests Be as Tough as NAEP?

As we reported to you earlier this month, PARCC and Smarter Balanced are working to set their "college ready" cut scores at a NAEP-like level of difficulty. Once that happens, something new will have taken shape on the assessment landscape: the vast majority of states will report how their students stack up on one shared scale of achievement.

Setting a cut score at an ambitious point—and telling the public how your students performed—is one thing. But it's entirely another to attach consequences to that performance. As my story said, most states are being pretty cautious about the individual-level stakes they attach to performance on the new common-core tests (a point echoed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's recent four-part examination of how five states are implementing the common core).

That means that you're not likely to see schools rushing to deny students diplomas because they didn't meet the "college ready" cutoff on a PARCC test. You're not likely to see districts refusing to promote children to 4th or 8th grade because they fell short of the "on track to college readiness" cut point on a Smarter Balanced test. At least not right away.

Even with that caution offering a bit of a cushion, though, the project to make PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests approximate NAEP's tough proficiency level is making people uncomfortable. While there have long been calls for uniformly higher expectations, no one wants to see bloodshed when test scores are reported, either.

This awkward tension showed up when the cut-score-setting plans of the two state testing consortia were discussed at a recent meeting of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

W. James Popham, a governing board member who also sits on Smarter Balanced's technical advisory committee, said that while state schools chiefs "have a vested interest" in setting cut scores that minimize political fallout, technical advisors to a testing project push for a higher cut score because they don't want their test to be seen as weak.

He worried that "in the quest to look good... NAEP might be playing too dominant" a role in setting performance standards for the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests. When the NAEP cut scores were set, Popham noted, they were intended to be "aspirational." Setting PARCC and SBAC "college ready" scores at that level of rigor has states "frightened," he said.

Patricia Wright, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, said that states "like to be ambitious, but [NAEP-like proficiency cut scores] may not be the cut scores we want to set if we want to maintain our accountability systems."

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who attended that Dec. 6 NAGB meeting, agreed that states are frightened about the cut-score setting. But they're "staying the course," he said, and they need all the encouragement possible to keep doing that.

Harvard psychometrician and NAGB member Andrew Ho expressed concern that "unrealistically high short-term goals are a risk" that creates the incentive to focus on the "bubble kids" in a bid to meet those goals. Minnich agreed that states need to "incentivize all parts of the scale" when they revamp their accountability systems (and/or when the Elementary anĀ  Secondary Education Act is reauthorized).

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