In a previous post (Part One), I discussed the MSPAP program in Maryland as an example of a “test worth teaching to” and pointed out the ways in which its good intentions were subverted. Basically, as the assessment became high stakes for schools, schools sought short cuts and formulas they felt would lead to success. Often what the formulaic approach required was actually counter to good instructional practice. So this raises the question of are there high stakes tests that are actually tests worth teaching to? And how would these tests compare to the proposed consortia assessments? From this comparison we may get a sense of whether the assessments from PARCC and SBAC will be worth teaching to.
I think many would point to the AP testing program. There are some concerns about content covered in these tests. I know that many AP tests have been and are being revised to narrow the scope of what may be covered to allow teachers to focus more on depth of understanding. And there may be differing views about whether to reward college credit for AP scores or simply use the scores for placement decisions; however, these concerns do not directly question the value of the program as a whole. On the whole, the AP tests are recognized as rigorous educational assessments that require students to demonstrate their depth of content knowledge. Further, participation in an AP course or courses correlates strongly with subsequent success in college.
First, the AP tests are long – taking about half a school day – and they are focused in their content coverage. ELA is broken into two tests, one focused on literature and one on language and composition. Consortia assessments will cover both areas. In math, Calculus is offered as two assessments and statistics is a separate assessment. SBAC will cover at least algebra, geometry and statistics in one assessment. PARCC will offer three high school assessments, but PARCC assessments will still have a broader scope than AP exams with statistics embedded in algebra or geometry assessments—alternatively PARCC will offer three integrated assessments. This is important because there will be a tradeoff between measuring the breadth of the Common Core State Standards and measuring their depth. Because of the breadth of their assessments, the consortia will be limited in measuring depth of understanding.
Another limiting factor in measuring depth of understanding will be cost. AP tests are expensive with a cost per student three or four time the cost that the consortia are suggesting for their educational assessments. Though some of the costs of AP assessments go to item development, much of the cost goes to the scoring of the constructed response items used to measure the depth of student understanding. Remember, the over three hundred million dollars the consortia received from the federal government is only for test development, not test administration and scoring. States are not able to pay for extensive scoring of constructed response items.
Some might argue that the consortia will measure the depth of the standards through their technology enhanced items (TEI) rather than through constructed response. However, the TEI released so far do not fulfill this promise. This brief thought experiment comparing the upcoming consortia assessments to the AP assessments confirms my belief that the promise of the Common Core State Standards will not be fulfilled by considering the assessments as “tests worth teaching to.”