Blog: The Educated Reporter

Showing – Not Just Telling – Stories About Testing

An illustration accompanying a sample question from the new Smarter Balanced 11th-grade mathematics test. (Source: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium)

By now, many education reporters have written many times over about a new generation of standardized tests coming this spring. Most of the time, reporters have little space and use shorthand to explain that the exams are supposed to be more rigorous and measure critical thinking. Often, there is too much telling and not enough showing.

At EWA’s seminar on assessments at Stanford University in November, Andrew Latham of WestEd — a nonprofit research and development agency – walked reporters through sample items and tasks from past state assessments and ones that are replacing them.

The EWA audience heard conflicting opinions at the seminar about whether the tests have changed much (Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond says absolutely, journalist and author Anya Kemenetz says not so much). 

If the samples provided by Latham are any indication, the changes are significant. By putting ourselves in students’ shoes, it was clear these questions require deeper thinking – and probably a lot more time.

Historically, each state has developed its own standards and tests, leading to a patchwork advocates of the Common Core State Standards and aligned assessments say leaves many students ill-prepared.

“Will the tests do a better job?” Latham asked. “It is clear the new questions are on track to being much more challenging.”

Unlike students who (with few exceptions) will be taking the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests online, reporters used pencil and paper at Stanford. The new assessments involve extended reading passages, multi-step problems and citing evidence. We’ll look quickly at three examples here:

In a “then” example of a fourth-grade reading test of vocabulary, students are asked to identify two synonyms for the word “heap” from among five choices. The entire item takes all of 12 words.

The “now” example, from a Smarter Balanced exam, gives students a 28-word reading passage about bees and honey. One of the words – similar – is underlined in the passage. Students are asked to choose from five statements that suggest the definition of “similar.”

The exercise is not just about defining a word, but identifying it in the context of a reading passage. As one reporter-participant noted, it tests a lot more vocabulary skills in a single question.

On to high school … In the “then” example testing literary analysis, students are asked to read a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne, then pick from four answers the best that sums up the author’s philosophy.

The PARCC test example asks students to read a much longer passage from a more contemporary work – a choice that would certainly bother the vocal, more tradition-minded critics of the new tests. In this case, the passage is from the 1928 novel “Quicksand” by African-American author Nella Larsen.

The two-part question quizzes students over the meaning of the phrase “inherent aloneness,” and asks them to identify a quotation from the text that shows the protagonist moving away from that aloneness.

“This is really hard,” said Latham, who helped develop plenty of old-style tests over the years. “These are subtle. I would also say, the text is a rich, deep text, much more so than other earlier state tests.”

Finally, a Smarter Balanced high-school math item quizzes students on ratios with a question about the “two-second rule” about following another vehicle on the road from a safe distance.

Students are asked to explain how the rule leads to a great minimum following distance as the speed of the cars increases. They are asked to include the minimum following distances, in feet, for cars traveling at 30 mph and 60 mph. (The question could have the unintended benefit of raising students’ awareness of safe driving habits.)

Some reporters wondered whether that would unfairly penalize students without great writing skills – including English learners.

Thankfully, reporters’ scores on the sample tests were lost to history.