WASHINGTON — What’s on the new Common Core-based exams? More than 4 million kids in U.S. schools soon will have a clue.
Field testing begins this coming week in 36 states and the District of Columbia on assessments developed by two different groups of states. Participating students will be asked to sit for hours in front of a computer or use a No. 2 pencil to answer questions.
But there’s no need for kids to worry. The scores won’t count, this time. The actual exam-testing won’t be used for another year.
The Common Core standards spell out what math and English skills students should have at each grade, and are designed to develop more critical thinking skills than traditional school work. They were first pushed by governors concerned about the large number of high school graduates needing remedial college help and lacking basic skills. Most states have adopted them.
The field tests, to be conducted until June, are a big step forward in the push to more fully integrate the new academic standards into the school environment. They will give education officials a chance to judge things such as the quality of each test question and the technical capabilities of schools to administer the tests, which are computer-based but also will be available on paper.
But they also come as the standards face political push-back in many states
Indiana lawmakers, for example, last year paused implementation of the standards and a measure ending the state’s participation is at the governor’s desk. House lawmakers in Tennessee passed legislation that would delay implementation — and testing — under Common Core for two years, but that proposal hasn’t been taken up in the Senate.
Common Core supporters hope the field tests provide an opportunity to highlight the best of Common Core.
"There’s been a lot of talk and a lot of planning and it’s actually happening, which I think generates some excitement and some reality, if you will, for the fact that this is moving ahead," said Jeffrey Nellhaus, director of research, policy and design with the consortium Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.
Joe Willhoft, the executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, told reporters there will be snags, and that’s in part due to the nature of what a field test is — a test run and an opportunity to see what works and doesn’t. Already, out of concern there would be technical problems, Smarter Balanced delayed by a week to this week the start of its field tests.
"We have a saying in Smarter Balanced that if nothing goes wrong in the field test, then actually we have failed," Willhoft said.
While opposition to the standards has been multi-dimensional, some critics take issue with the tests and how the results will be used because the tests are designed to replace the annual assessments given in states.
Also complicating matters are the new teacher evaluation systems rolling out in many states that rely, in part, on student performance on annual exams. Questions have been raised about when or if the Common Core-based assessments should count on these evaluations.
Supporters are warning that scores on the new assessments will drop compared with the old tests, but they say they will be a more accurate measurement of student knowledge.
The field tests themselves have generated other concerns. Some states’ officials worry about double testing, meaning some students are participating in both the field test and taking a state exam. In response, the Education Department gave California permission to just give the field tests to all students in third- to eighth-grades, meaning they won’t be given the state assessment this year. Similar permission was given to other states, including Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota, according to the Education Department.
Smarter Balanced and PARCC were created to help states pool resources to develop the tests. But some states have opted to use different ones. Florida, for example, recently signed a contract with the nonprofit American Institutes for Research to develop an assessment for its standards, which are largely based on the Common Core standards.
For the states participating in the field tests, how they will be conducted varies.
PARCC said more than 1 million students will participate in its field tests, and about 10 percent of the students in 14 states and the District of Columbia will take them. It says its field tests will take no more than three hours for most students.
Smarter Balanced said in its 22 participating states, more than 3 million students will participate, with several states seeing most or all of its students participating. The two subject areas — math and English — are each expected to take 2½ hours to four hours to complete, but not all students will take both parts.
Among the questions the consortiums said they’ll be addressing:
—Do certain questions seem too easy or too hard?
—Is gender, race or ethnicity a factor in how students perform?
—Do students score better using a computer or pencil and paper? And, do they do better on a tablet compared to a computer?
—Do schools have the bandwidth to handle computer-based assessments?
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn., and Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
Follow Kimberly Hefling on Twitter: http://twitter.com/khefling
Smarter Balanced: http://www.smarterbalanced.org