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Like the counterculture era soul song, “War,” sung by Edwin Starr, the Smarter Balanced Assessments get people riled enough to ask a key question: “What is it good for?” Whereas you may be of the opinion that the war is good for “absolutely nothing,” it’s difficult to assign the same value to something so relatively new like the Smarter Balanced Assessments. These are tests that are supposed to, according to www.smarterbalanced.org, accomplish the following:
• Accurately describe student achievement and growth of student learning; and
• Provide valid, reliable, and fair measures of students’ progress toward, and attainment of the knowledge and skills required to be college and career-ready.
As an educator, I’ve always been reticent to hold in high esteem an examination that is not somehow tied to college admission requirements. This was my beef, so to speak, with the California Standards Tests. It has only been a few years since these examinations went the way of the dinosaur, but if you recall these standards tests were used merely to qualify and compare schools across CA on the basis of overall student results. The lone positive in my mind was the ability to determine which demographic groups at a school fared the best, and which fared the worst. The CA standards test allowed school officials to have powerful conversations with their staffs about performance equity and access to the curriculum. Over the years, some schools made headway, closing the achievement gap that exists between their low-socioeconomic and minority students, and their Asian and White student counterparts. Others made no headway at all. Still others took a turn for the worse, being unable to stop the achievement gap from widening.
Like the state standards tests, each state’s Smarter Balanced Assessments (CA’s version is called the CA Assessment of Student Performance and Progress or CA.A.S.P.P.) will attempt to present teachers, administrators, and parents, with a gauge on students’ abilities to read and respond to questions that check understanding of text. The SBA is more robust, however. A student, for example, will also have to demonstrate their ability to write, listen, and even research! And in the case of math, with the SBA students will not only have to problem solve, but they’ll also need to be able to demonstrate knowledge of mathematical procedures, data analysis, and most notably, communicate their mathematical reasoning in writing. Thus, truly the SBA will “provide…measures of students’ progress toward, and attainment of the knowledge and skills required to be college and career-ready.” Still, there is a major problem with the SBA.
As I mentioned above, the exams are not tied in any way to college admission requirements. The Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T is tied to college admission, and we can all see for ourselves how serious students (those who are going to apply to a 4-year college) and their parents take this test. Students attend Saturday morning Kaplan study courses, do available practice tests, and take great measures to maximize their performance. In many cases, parents also pay for private tutors. Why is all of this done? Because this test matters!
With much disappointment, I have to say to parents who are reading this that the SBA per se will not help your child get into college. However, if your high school age child should happen to take the SBA seriously, the results may expose areas in their learning that need to be improved prior to being in college. Having this information can be crucial in that a student will now be able to tailor his/her time to improving a weakness. It will fall on each student (with parental support) to get the help they need from their teachers to ameliorate any learning gap once discovered. The SBA will be perhaps the most college skill aligned examination ever administered at the high school level; if a four-year college is the expected destination, it behooves parents then to encourage their student perform their best. With 4-year colleges being almost unaffordable these days, SBA student performance outcomes could make the decision to start at a more affordable junior college that much easier for families.
Involved state departments of education will need to do better than opt-in to a semi-national assessment system. They will need to do more than send their delegates to wherever test development and content discussions take place. State departments must work with their public and private colleges and universities so that at the high school level, these exams have significance. If the state department education officials can’t work with colleges and universities to change entrance requirements to include SBA in some way, I foresee many years of warring between the various political factions. If the status quo remains, students and parents will continue to focus on grades, honors and advanced placement course selections, extra-curricular activities, the S.A.T, and not much of anything else.