The Smarter Balanced Assessment and “Testing” Time in School

Recently, following the release of a report by The Council of Great City Schools regarding the amount of time schools devote to administering various tests to K-12 students, the Obama administration issued guidance and a plan of action for helping states and school districts identify and eliminate redundant and ineffective testing in K-12 schools. Although in even the most-tested grade (8th) the data indicated that students spend only 2.3% of the instructional time over the year engaged in formal assessment activities, all of a sudden in some ways there seems to be a growing national consensus that there’s “too much testing,” even though the question, “how much testing is enough?” has not really been addressed or answered. For learning to be most successful–and not just with individual learners, but for teachers, schools, and the system as a whole–it’s critical to have meaningful feedback about the individual and collective progress toward preparing students for the next steps in their lives beyond high school. Multiple key stakeholders–students, teachers, families, educators, and the general public–need this feedback, and it’s not uncommon for the kind of feedback needed by different groups to be different, resulting at times in multiple tests. It’s important to step back and examine how well-coordinated this testing is and what quality feedback is being provided; it’s also important to be cautious about going to the other extreme in eliminating tests and in doing so losing opportunities for substantive feedback.

With that in mind, it’s helpful to be reminded here in Washington state what being part of the Smarter Balanced consortium means in terms of the nature and quality of the primary statewide assessment system for students in public K-12 education:

  • Smarter Balanced members developed a high quality and comprehensive assessment system designed to improve teaching and learning. Educators from across the country built the assessments to replace outdated “fill in the bubble” tests that don’t measure critical thinking and problem solving skills.
  • The Smarter Balanced end-of year assessments are customized to meet individual student needs.  The tests are designed to ensure that they give teachers and students valuable information that can help to improve teaching and learning.
  • Because educators know learning happens throughout the year and requires more than just an end-of-year summative test, the Smarter Balanced system offers teachers an online library of thousands of educator-created classroom resources, as well as optional and flexible interim tests to help educators know how their students are progressing throughout the year.
  • Almost 5,000 of the nation’s educators help build the Smarter Balanced system so that the Smarter Balanced tests measure the knowledge and skills that each student needs to learn to be successful after high school.
  • The Smarter Balanced test includes questions that require students to demonstrate their ability to think critically and solve problems, both essential skills for college- and career-readiness.
  • There’s no time limit on the Smarter Balanced end-of-year test—students have the time they need to show what they know and can do. The Smarter Balanced end-of-year test has fewer questions than most previous state tests. Because Smarter Balanced questions require students to think critically, write essays, and analyze complex problems the questions take more time to answer than traditional multiple choice questions.
  • The administration of the Smarter Balanced end-of-year test takes less than 1% of the school year. Many states report that the test took even less time.

Beyond all of that, the placement agreements with higher education institutions in the state mean that colleges and universities recognize student performance on the Smarter Balanced as a meaningful indicator of readiness for college-level work in math and English. So while it’s worth assessing the overall testing landscape to minimize the burden on students and educators, it’s also important to acknowledge the benefits of a solid, statewide system of assessments like Smarter Balanced.