New Tests for Common Core Standards Make Public Debut

The new computerized assessments, which states will begin piloting in 2013, mark a radical new approach to testing.
by , | October 9, 2012 AT 3:00 PM

In two years, no student in the country will need a No. 2 pencil to complete their yearly exams. Bubble sheets will be a thing of the past. Coupled with the Common Core State Standards, new college and career-ready academic metrics that nearly every state will adopt, new computerized tests are being developed to assess whether students have grasped them.

In mathematics, to test geometry skills, students will be presented with a cube filled with water and an empty cylinder. They’ll know the full dimensions of the cube, but only the height of the cylinder, and be asked to calculate the cylinder’s radius. To help them, they can click on the screen to move water from the cube to the cylinder. Based on the changing water levels, and the geometric equations they were supposed to learn in class, they should be able to get an answer.

"Different students will actually choose different equations to solve the problems," said Shelbi Cole, director for mathematics at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which produced the testing model, in a presentation to the media.

It’s a radically different form of testing. So, with the Common Core standards taking full effect in 2014, Smarter Balanced (one of the two multi-state groups founded to create tests based on them) debuted Tuesday its first set of sample test questions and tasks for review by the public and educators.

As Governing reported earlier this year, 28 states have joined Smarter Balanced, and 24 are members of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC), which is developing another set of assessments. (A few states are participating in both). Smarter Balanced is planning to pilot its assessments in early 2013, preparing for full launch for the 2014-2015 school year, so officials said it was important to let those who would be using the tests to get a look at them.

"We want to help teachers understand the kinds of shifts in instruction that will be necessary under the system," said Joe Wilhoft, executive director of Smarter Balanced. “We want to demonstrate the kind of rigor and complexity that will be required."

For those interested, the sample tasks and assessments are available online: mathematics here and English language arts here.

The questions range from single interactive questions (like the cube and cylinder example) to performance tasks (such as researching the pros and cons of nuclear energy, as if preparing a staff report for a member of Congress) that could take multiple hour-long sessions. The broader theme of the tests, like the Common Core standards themselves, is engaging students in the kind of critical thinking that will be needed in higher education and beyond.

Each question includes links that explain what skills are being tested (such as identifying and summarizing key events for language arts) and instantaneous scoring. Students will no longer be given an excerpt to read then asked multiple-choice questions that require as much guessing as thoughtful analysis. Instead, for example, students might read a passage then be asked to go back and click on three sentences that show that a character is feeling guilt.

"It asks students to go back into the text and examine it more closely,” said Barbara Kapinus, Smarter Balanced’s director of English language arts and literacy. “They have to make sure there is evidence in the text for making an inference."