State Signs on to Help Develop Tomorrow’s Tests

John Mooney | April 19, 2011 | Education
New Jersey joins governing board of next-generation assessment effort

As testing drives state education policy more and more, New Jersey has formally signed on with a national group developing the next generation of standardized tests, ones that take place over the course of the school year and could have computers asking the questions.

At the same time, the state also has informed districts that this spring’s administration of a separate algebra test would be the last, at least for now, as the new exams are brought on board in the coming years. Other tests will remain in place for the time being.

Achieve Inc., a non-profit group out of Washington, D.C., is developing the new tests. It announced Friday that New Jersey has agreed to be a governing board member of the assessment effort, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

While not a final commitment to adopt the tests, New Jersey is the 15th state to join the governing board, along with Massachusetts, New York and Florida, among others.

PAARC is one of two national assessment programs that had been funded by the federal government as part of its Race to the Top program. It is charged with developing models that states could follow as they adopt the new nationwide Common Core State Standards.

The other model, known as SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, is being developed out of WestEd in California and was initially led by noted Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond. WestEd describes itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency that works with education and other communities…”

New Jersey, like many states, had straddled the two efforts for months as each program’s work was being completed. Achieve’s vice president said New Jersey only recently sent in a memorandum of agreement to be a PARCC board member, signed by Gov. Chris Christie and acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

“They will now be helping make the decisions about the design and content of the next tests,” said Sandra Boyd, Achieve’s vice president for communications. “They will be taking an active part.”

With the tests at the center of Christie’s plans for teacher and school accountability, the difference between the two assessment efforts involves the arcane nature of testing and psychometrics.

The PARCC model is considered the more structured of the two in requiring a series of “through-course” assessments over the span of the year, given every two months to be closer to when the students learn the material. The results of those assessments would go into a single score at the end of the year.

But both are big departures from the kinds of state tests now administered, using computers and other technology to oversee the evaluations and relying heavily on performance-based assessments taken over two days that require students to complete broader tasks, rather than fill in multiple choices or short answers.

Still, much is to be determined in the coming months and even years, with the new tests not slated to be in place until 2014 and PARCC’s work starting in earnest this summer to develop what the tests will look like and include, Boyd said.

In the meantime, New Jersey is beginning to move away from its current tests, with the two-year-old Algebra I exam being given only once more. It probably won’t be much missed. A vast majority of New Jersey students failed the exam last year and the state had to hold off on making it a requirement for graduation, as initially planned.

That test had also been the product of a consortium of states, again in partnership with Achieve under its American Diploma Project. That project was to focus on specific subject skills through end-of-course exams, instead of the state’s current one-time high school assessment in language arts and math.

But with the new assessment efforts under way and the Common Core standards increasingly adopted by other states, New Jersey joined those states in giving up the algebra test.

Cerf said in a letter to districts last week that the department remains committed to end-of-course exams and he hopes districts wouldn’t deemphasize the algebra test this year.

“Please do not interpret this to mean the state does not value the results of the upcoming Algebra assessment,” he wrote. “The Algebra I assessment is aligned to the Common Core standards and the rigor expected of students to be college and career ready.”

With the contract for the state’s existing High School Proficiency Assessment also slated to expire in 2012, Cerf asked districts for their input in developing the high school tests that will bridge the gap to the new PARCC exams.