States band together to create new national academic tests to replace patchwork system

SEATTLE (AP) — Two big coalitions of states are competing for federal dollars to create a series of new national academic tests to replace the current patchwork system.

In the current system, every state gives a different test to its students. In some states, passing the exam is a graduation requirement.

The federal government has said it will award up to two grants of up to $160 million to create a testing system based on the proposed new national academic standards in language arts and mathematics.

Washington state is submitting the application on behalf of the group of 31 states calling itself the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Florida is submitting an application on behalf of a group of 26 states calling itself the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Each coalition has a core group and a bigger collection of states supporting the idea. Some states have signed on to support both groups. The two proposals have many similarities and the coalitions are working together on some things, but are not identical in approach or philosophy.

A third organization has expressed interest in a separate grant to create just a high school test.

The Washington coalition's proposal describes a testing system different from what is happening in most states in a number of ways:

— Testing would be online and given at least twice a year to help teachers and parents track student progress.

— The exams would adapt to measure each student's abilities. That's expensive, cutting-edge technology that most individual states could not afford on their own.

— Teachers would be given other tools for ongoing, informal assessment to help them figure out if students are learning on a daily basis so they can adjust how they are teaching when necessary.

— The high school test will be designed for 11th grade, while many states currently give it in 10th.

— The system is expected to go beyond multiple choice tests and include short answer, essays and questions that require students to do research.

The Florida-led group talks about testing three times a year. Its tests would not be adaptive and an initial reading of the two plans seems to indicate the Florida-led project may include more pen and paper work.

Kris Ellington, assistant deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, emphasized her group is focusing on accountability and affordability, in addition to looking for effective ways to measure the broadest demonstration of student knowledge.

This is a long-term project, with new tests ready to be used as state accountability exams by the 2014-15 school year.

Individual states will still determine whether to use the high school test as a graduation requirement and whether they want to use any system that is created. Half of all states currently require graduation tests of some kind.

It's not clear yet how many states will adopt the common core standards for language arts and math. Federal law does not require adoption of the national standards but each state is forced to use some kind of test to determine if students and schools are making adequate yearly progress.

Washington's assessment manager, Joe Willhoft, who is leading one of the coalitions, said this process is an opportunity for the states to fix a testing system too focused on meeting federal rules and get back to thoroughly testing children to give guidance to teachers and truly helping improve education.

"We really have to have much better tests," agreed Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Center on Education Policy.

Jennings says the federal No Child Left Behind law had the unintended effect of narrowing assessments to just focus on accountability instead of driving student learning.

"We've lost our way and this is an attempt to bring everybody back to the original purposes of teaching and assessment," Jennings said.

Willhoft likes the idea of two paths toward new tests.

"There would be a lot of advantages for the Department of Education to have more than one consortium," he said, adding that he expects the end result will be more creative and high quality solutions.



SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium:

Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers: