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State Board previews tests of the future

The State Board of Education got a peek Thursday at the brave new world of 21st-century, multi-state testing, a world that could well be coming to Colorado.

Members heard presentations from executives of the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC, two organizations that are developing multi-state achievement tests in language arts and math that are aligned to the Common Core Standards.

Both groups, funded for now by $330 million in federal Race to the Top funds, expect to have tests available for use in the 2014-15 school year.

While Colorado Department of Education officials participate in both groups, the state board on Aug. 4 voted to seek vendor proposals for new Colorado-only tests to launch in the 2013-14 school year (See story).

But Gov. John Hickenlooper declined to put the $25 million cost of new test development in his 2012-13 budget request, raising doubts about when and if Colorado will be able to build and launch its own new tests. Henry Sobanet, the governor’s budget director, said the state should look into multi-state tests.

Board members on Thursday got lots of information mixed with technical jargon and salesmanship from Tony Alpert, chief operating officer of SMARTER, and Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a Washington-based education advocacy group that launched the PARCC group.

Both men also painted high-tech pictures that included such things as writing tests graded by computers programmed with artificial intelligence software.

And both speakers promised testing systems that will involve teachers in development, be focused on assessing student readiness for college and the workforce, be usable for fair teacher evaluations, include interim as well as annual tests, have databases with tens of thousands of questions and produce quick results.

Alpert, former Oregon state assessment director, pitched “a robust technology platform that you can trust” and said the SMARTER system will include adaptive assessments – tests that adjust to a student’s answers on the fly, giving different follow-up questions depending on whether the answers to previous questions are correct or not.

“Although our priority is English language arts and math, we are trying to build in options … for additional tests so you’ll have a one-stop shop for all your assessment needs,” Alpert told the board. Colorado now has science tests in elementary, middle and high school, and the state board wants to add a similar schedule of social studies tests.

Cohen, a former federal education official, talked about artificial intelligence scoring, mentioning IBM’s Watson computer as an analogy. “It’s going to take some effort to get there, but we think it is a realistic effort.”

He also said the PARCC tests are expected to be predictive of college success in the same way the ACT test is.

Colorado’s testing issues

State officials have concerns about the transition from paper to computer testing, costs and possible savings, and about timing.

Alpert said SMARTER will support paper annual tests for up to three years; Cohen said PARCC is still working on that issue. Colorado’s tests now are all on paper. The new solo system proposed by the CDE would phase in online tests.

Alpert said multi-state tests offer states features “at a cost they wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve,” and Cohen noted “delivering assessments online is one way to reduce costs.”

Cohen estimated that Colorado spends $15.14 on each reading and math test, compared to a median cost of $14.42 for all PARCC states. He said his group could offer per-test costs of $9.54 to $11.01, depending on how much human scoring is needed.

Alpert didn’t give the board a specific cost estimate but told Education News Colorado after the meeting that SMARTER estimates a total cost of $19.81 for both reading and math annual tests. He said the group is going to do a new estimate early next year.

CDE Assistant Commissioner Jo O’Brien told EdNews that she doesn’t know how the PARCC $15.14 estimate was determined. She said Colorado spent $15.9 million this year for the last CSAPs. “If we consider that we administered approximately 1,631,650 tests, we get a $9.78 per test cost,” she said in an email.

Board member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, asked about long-term funding for the two groups. “Undoubtedly we’re going to look to the federal government to continue the work of the two,” Alpert said.

Berman also noted Colorado’s time squeeze, saying, “You guys are one year behind” and asking “What if both consortia can’t meet the deadline?” for launching tests.

“I worry about that all the time,” Alpert quipped but added, “We know how to build tests. There will be two tests” ready in time.

Cohen said each project has numerous interim benchmarks so “if we’re not getting there, we’ll all know in advance.”

Board member Paul Lundeen, R-5th District, asked why the process takes so long. “What’s the holdup?”

Cohen said the timetable was built into the R2T grant and that such large, complex projects just take time.

The subject didn’t come up during the meeting, but EdNews asked both men when Colorado should make a decision.

“As soon as possible … sooner rather than later is better,” Alpert said.

“Time is of the essence,” said Cohen.

Background on PARCC and SMARTER

The two groups grew out of the move to create Common Core Standards for language arts and math, an initiative fostered by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. SMARTER is a merger of small groups of states; PARCC was initiated by the NGA and business groups.

There are 24 states affiliated with PARCC and 28 with SMARTER.

PARCC has 16 governing members while SMARTER has 20. Governing members of both groups have votes and, according to Alpert, are expected to use the tests when they become available.

Including Colorado, only six states are participating in both consortia but are governing members of neither. The others are Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Six states aren’t participating at any level with either consortia, including Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Virginia. Nevada has adopted the Common Core Standards, but the other five are the only states in the nation that haven’t adopted it.

Among Colorado’s immediate neighboring states, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma are governing members of PARCC, Kansas and Utah are governing members of SMARTER Balance and Wyoming is a member of that group.

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