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OP-ED | Peeling The Assessment Onion

by Margaret Cibes | Apr 11, 2014 10:00am
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is the focus of much controversy to date about the testing’s potential effects on state and local governments, with respect to their budgets, on school districts, with respect to their curricula, and on teachers, with respect to their salaries. We need to “peel” the assessment “onion” to look at its potential effects on the core group — the students, who are most directly affected by any testing program.

That is, we need to look at the test itself and evaluate its effect, on us older, smarter balanced folks.

I just took the grade 7 math “Practice Test” at home, and you can, too. Readers may sign in as a “Guest” to take the test at For “answers,” see the Scoring Guide at

Software? See the CALCULATOR and Notepad buttons. One might expect these to be helpful. However, the online calculator is not the more commonly used scientific/graphing calculator that can display an entire arithmetic expression, and the online Notepad is probably less effective than pencil and paper for a student’s scratch work.

Best practices? It is good practice to provide simple introductory questions that put students at ease and instill some comfort and confidence at the outset, but there are no such start-up questions. And most problems include multiple parts, which will make it difficult to determine sources of student errors, which would help in implementing improvements in teaching.

Multiple correct answers? There is nothing wrong with having more than one correct response – if correct, but non-obvious, responses will be scored correctly. For example, one fill-in-the-blanks problem asks for the ratio of 3 tomatoes to 4 potatoes, but it is not clear whether a correct, available response of 6:8 would be scored as correct. Another example involves writing a fraction, but it is not clear whether a correct, available response of 5/1 would be scored as correct.

Real-life settings? It is unarguably important to test whether students can apply math knowledge to real-life situations. While there are problems that attempt to do this, the settings are often remarkable for how un-real they are. For example, consider a problem about painting a pentagonal wall with cans of paint that can each cover an area of only 24 square feet or ones that require calculation of six total purchase prices, such as 6 pens and 6 erasers, to determine whether a customer has enough money, but for which real-life estimation is not sufficient.

Content level? Almost a quarter of the problems test algebraic skills/concepts. It is difficult to understand how pushing so much algebra down to 7th grade, or earlier, is appropriate for the majority of 7th graders, who have not traditionally been considered ready for the abstractions of algebraic reasoning. For example, there is a problem that requires students to solve an equation for one variable, w, in terms of another, v, using the distributive property at least six times and the additive inverse property at least twice.

As a high-school teacher, I observed that the students who performed better in algebra were those with strong arithmetic backgrounds. And, as a college instructor, I made the same observation about students in calculus with strong algebra backgrounds. Going faster through the math curriculum is not the route to higher-level math success for most students.

Diversity of approaches? While students should be exposed to different approaches to problems, and original approaches should be applauded, students should not have to guess what method the SBAC folks expect as a correct answer.  The Board Chair of the State Department of Education testified to state legislators, on March 12, 2014, that the aim of adopting the Common Core is a “focus on fewer topics handled in more depth.” My impression is that “more depth” means that scores will depend upon students figuring out what the testers want in the way of multiple solution methods, rather than upon students getting correct solutions from any one of a variety of correct methods. Students with unique, correct reasoning patterns may suffer, as may students who find exposure to different methods confusing.

Painting a wall? Try this problem:

Margaret Cibes is a retired math and statistics teacher. She’s a contributor to the Media Clips department of the Mathematics Teacher journal and the Chance News wiki.

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(7) Comments

posted by: Bluecoat | April 11, 2014  11:24am

All Students will be affected by these idiotic Assessments.
These Assessments were created for on reason and one reason only.
To be a vehicle by which personal and private information will be purged and if not out right stolen from, students as they log into the system.
Periodic Psych and personality tests will also be given.
Per the Federal Agreement with the USDOE and SBAC:
Finally, the assessment systems will produce data (including student achievement data and student growth data) that can be used to inform (a) determinations of school effectiveness; (b) determinations of individual principal and teacher effectiveness for purposes of evaluation; (c) determinations of principal and teacher professional development and support needs; and (d) teaching, learning, and program improvement.

5) Comply with, and where applicable coordinate with the ED staff to fulfill, the program requirements established in the RTTA Notice Inviting Applications and the conditions on the grant award, as well as to this agreement, including, but not limited to working with the Department to develop a strategy to make student-level data that results from the assessment system available on an ongoing basis for research, including for prospective linking, validity, and program improvement studies; subject to applicable privacy laws.

Nothing included here that the 1974 FERPA law was gutted without the consent of Congress.

posted by: Bluecoat | April 11, 2014  11:27am

Also, We need to be aware of CT House Bill No. 5381:
From the Mom in Cheshire’s Blog -
According to the Office of Legislative Research

This bill requires UConn, in collaboration with the Board of Regents for Higher Education and the Education and Labor departments, to develop and implement the “P20 WIN” system to report on its graduates’ success, by major, with regard to employment and earnings. Under the bill, the “P20 WIN” system, also known as the “Preschool through 20 Workforce Information Network”:

1. securely and privately links data across agencies and departments that serve individuals from early childhood through elementary and secondary school and into the adult workforce and

2. provides the data to “education and workforce leaders” to help them understand patterns over time and make decisions to improve outcomes for individuals and the state.

The bill does not specify the types of data the system shares, the people or entities it shares with, or the particular purpose for which it can be used [emphasis mine

posted by: Bluecoat | April 11, 2014  11:35am

Also, the CT Mom from Cheshire has found out about these changes to this House Bill form it’s original language, to what is now being proposed.

The original bill had this language:
“P20WIN System” means a system that securely and privately links data, NONE OF WHICH MAY CONTAIN PERSONALLY IDENTIFIABLE INFORMATIONS, across the agencies and departments….
The new version of the bill reads as follows:
“P20WIN System” means a system that securely and privately links data across the agencies and departments.

posted by: Bluecoat | April 11, 2014  11:38am

So is anyone at CT News Junkie interested in why the State of CT is including personal and private information within Student Data bases that will be collected without parental or Guardian notification and/or written permission?
Or why State officials have changed the language to delete the phrase “none of which may contain personally identifiable information”?


posted by: ceolaf | April 11, 2014  11:38am

I do not want teachers to be assessment experts. I want teachers to be experts in scaffolding lessons, classroom management, and delivering appropriate actionable feedback to learners in real time. I want them to understand developmental psychology.

Summative assessment? No. That’s not necessary. There is so much that is more important for them know and understand.

Unfortunately, our teacher preparation programs rarefuly focus on high quality in-class assessment practices, and in-service PD is notoriously poor.

Whil many people look to teachers to comment on large scale assesment, this is simply not fair to them — nor fair to those who would wish to learn from their comments. While teachers have valubale perspectives, and should take part in these conversation, their expertise is NOT summative assessment.

Generally, teacher assessment practices are pretty poor. This includes the practices of my own teachers and myself when I was teaching. While I learned a lot about assessment while teaching, I learned much more after leaving the classroom and learing from the advanced reseach on psychometrics and on test development.

posted by: Bluecoat | April 11, 2014  12:22pm

Teachers may not know this, but the Race to the Top Summary Agreement has this language:
“(D)(3) Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals (25 points)
The extent to which the State, in collaboration with its participating LEAs (as defined in this notice), has a high-quality plan and ambitious yet achievable annual targets to—
(i) Ensure the equitable distribution of teachers and principals by developing a plan, informed by reviews of prior actions and data, to ensure that students in high-poverty and/or high-minority schools (both as defined in this notice) have equitable access to highly effective teachers and principals (both as defined in this notice) and are not served by ineffective teachers and principals at higher rates than other students; and (15 points)
(ii) Increase the number and percentage of effective teachers (as defined in this notice) teaching hard-to-staff subjects and specialty areas including mathematics, science, and special education; teaching in language instruction educational programs (as defined under Title III of the ESEA); and teaching in other areas as identified by the State or LEA. (10 points)
Plans for (i) and (ii) may include, but are not limited to, the implementation of incentives and strategies in such areas as recruitment, compensation, teaching and learning environments, professional development, and human resources practices and processes.”

So in my mind this means together with the assessments and teacher evaluations, if your school has high performing teachers on a regular basis, and another town does not, guess what, say good by to your teachers and principals, because this isn’t fair!
So in essence, you can keep your teachers and principals, but you will have to move to the same crappy district that they will be moved to, if they want to stay in teaching!

posted by: Historian | April 12, 2014  10:50am

good that she is retired.. The only question here will be settled by the results - which will be disputed and twisted also by all. One only wishes for an Alexander to untie, again, a gordinian knot.