The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium recently released practice tests, and I just took the one for 11th grade math. I often tell my students that I try to design exams that make them think; most of the items on the practice tests meet that criterion. I like the way it makes productive use of, for example, drag-and-drop, but maybe I’m just showing my age. I did have fun with it, and found it to do a much better job of getting at conceptual understanding than any standardized test I ever took. That contrast highlights the naiveté of the blind faith in standardized testing as a measure of learning that underlies so much educational policy at regional and national levels. (I know, I was trying to stay away from all that, but I can’t talk about interesting test items without considering the larger context.)
Another way to have a look at SBAC test items is by way of a handy comparison video that Andrew Stadel has put up on his blog. He’s chosen a few released items from previous versions of California’s state tests, and put them alongside comparable practice questions from the SBAC. (By “comparable” I mean treating similar concepts.) Again, if we must live in a WYTIWYG environment, I’d prefer better tests, and I think the SBAC items are clearly better than the CST ones. The comments below his video are also worth a look; they illustrate a range of teacher responses, from “a much richer challenge. I’m looking forward to it” to concerns about how much will ride on a relatively short test to concerns about how much class time will have to be given over to testing. I share all of those responses, which is one indicator of the complexity of teaching in the U.S. at this time.
At this point natural questions are these: Must we live in a high-stakes testing environment? Couldn’t somebody explain to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education that it’s actually counterproductive to use test results as proxies for, e.g., teacher quality? Actually somebody has: a group of members of the National Commission on Mathematics Instruction has submitted this letter to Secretary Arne Duncan. It’s important to note that the authors are not anti-testing; instead, they make a strong case that current policies are “likely to lead to unproductive teaching practices and poor outcomes,” and back up their assertions with relevant research citations. (If only the New York Times would publish this letter instead of… oh, never mind.) If you find you agree with the letter, consider the authors’ request that you blog or tweet about it.