If everything had gone according to plan, most of the nation’s schoolchildren would be taking PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessments this spring to check their progress toward college and career readiness.

But as you know, Common Core has become a political lightning rod, and plans are changing as quickly as a classroom can go from quiet to chaos. The result? Many teachers began the school year not knowing which assessments their students would take come spring. Michigan, for instance, has ­adopted the Common Core and is a part of the Smarter Balanced consortium, but lawmakers declined to commit to Smarter Balanced tests. As a result, educators started to prepare students for yet-to-be-created assessments. It wasn’t until mid-November that state officials announced plans for the M-STEP; the ELA and math portions of the test will contain a mix of questions developed by Smarter Balanced and state educators. Other states are doing something similar: gleaning the best from PARCC or Smarter Balanced to develop state-specific tests.

To sort through the noise, we’ve compiled some of the most important information you need to know about PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

What We Know—and What We Don’t

Teachers, administrators, and parents are anxiously watching the assessment-­related developments, fully aware that students will sit for tests that look drastically different from those that have been used for years. Here’s what we know now—and what’s still up in the air.

● The new assessments will require students to demonstrate higher-level thinking. Forget fill-in-the-bubble and multiple-choice questions. The new assessments will include constructed response questions, multistep problems, and questions that require students to manipulate data or highlight information to support their answers.

● Technology creates opportunities (and challenges). Both the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments were designed to be administered via Internet-connected computers or tablets. Students may be asked to obtain information from an online video and drag and drop answers. But while school districts nationwide have been beefing up bandwidth, limited access to technology continues to be a concern. “We have 11 classrooms in our school that will be taking PARCC, but we have only one computer lab with 40 available devices,” says Suzy Brooks, a fourth-grade ­teacher in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

● Cost is a concern. Georgia pulled out of PARCC in July 2013 due to the cost of the assessment. PARCC recently lowered its price to about $24 per student, and Smarter Balanced says their summative assessment runs $22.50 per student (not including the cost of technology). A 2012 survey by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found that states were spending an average of $27 per student on assessment, so some states will actually see a savings.

● No one is sure how to handle the results. Some states, such as New York, have announced plans to include student assessment scores in teacher evaluations, which the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have strongly objected to. Both unions issued calls for a moratorium on assessment-based consequences, in order to allow teachers and students time to adjust to the new standards and tests.

PARCC vs. Smarter Balanced

While some states scramble to create assessments to measure student progress toward college and career readiness, PARCC and Smarter Balanced are tweaking their assessments based on feedback received after extensive field-testing in the spring of 2014. (More than 4 million students took Smarter Balanced assessments during the field-­testing process; more than 1 million participated in field tests of PARCC assessments.)

Education experts expect the final assessments to closely resemble the field test versions. Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced, for instance, will give students the opportunity to earn partial credit on performance tasks. There are also some important differences between the assessments. Here’s how they stack up.


● Fixed-form questions. All students within a grade level will be pre­sented with exactly the same
questions and tasks.

● Paper assessments are available. In 2015, paper versions of the assessments will likely be used by approximately a quarter of schools using PARCC, says David Connerty-Marin, PARCC’s director of communications. “Nationwide, school districts are looking to enhance their technology usage for students, but they’re not all there yet, so we need to have the paper-based version available for districts that aren’t ready.” PARCC is currently conducting research studies on field test data to determine the possibility of comparing scores from paper-based PARCC assessments to the computer-based one.

● Optional speaking and listening assessments. Activities to gauge students’ speaking and listening proficiency will be included with the assessment, but will be optional for the first few years, Connerty-Marin says.

Smarter Balanced

● Computer-adaptive testing. All students are tested on grade-level material, but test takers within the same grade level will answer different numbers of questions. That’s because the assessment is designed to increase or decrease the difficulty of the next question based on the student’s response to the previous question. As a result, students don’t waste time on questions that are too easy or too hard for them. The assessment will keep going “until students have answered enough questions that we’ve reached the level of precision we’re looking for in terms of measurement,” says Jacqueline King, spokesperson for Smarter Balanced.

● All testing will be via computer. Students will use computers (either PCs or tablets), keyboards, and
computer mouses to complete tasks.

● Speaking and listening assessments included. In addition to writing and reading activities, the English language arts portion will include speaking and listening activities. “For part of the test, kids will have headsets on and they’ll be listening and then answering questions about what they’ve heard,” King says.



Preparing for Anything

Whether students end up taking the PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or a state assessment, it falls to teachers to make sure they’re prepared. These tips, from teachers in the trenches, can help.

● Utilize the online practice tests, training tests, and sample questions. The best way for you and your students to get a feel for the new assessments is to work your way through the sample material online at parcconline.org and smarterbalanced.org.

You’ll need log-in credentials (which you should be able to get from your school) to access the teacher practice and training section at Smarter Balanced, but anyone can access the student practice tests as a guest, making them a great option for classroom use. (Concerned parents can work their way through the tests at home.) PARCC has ELA and math practice tests for grades 3–11.

Teacher Tip » “The practice tests on Smarter Balanced are a little more user-friendly [than PARCC’s]. They’re split up by individual grade level, whereas the PARCC practice tests are divided into grade ranges,” says fourth-grade Massachusetts teacher Brooks.

● Take advantage of educator resources. Smarter Balanced offers a digital library of educator resources, including lesson plans, instructional resources, and professional development activities. The Digital Library is available to states that have purchased a subscription. Check with your school district to find out whether you have access.

PARCC’s website includes an educator resource section, available under the PARCC Resources tab at the top
of the home page. Available resources include professional learning modules, sample questions, and task prototypes.

Teacher Tip » “My co-teacher and I use the sample test questions and resources to create our own lessons. We look at the questions at, above, and below grade level and then we mirror those,” says Marie Betten, an eighth-grade math teacher in Norton Shores, Michigan.

● Review online rubrics. Both the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments include constructed response questions, which require students to write answers. Reviewing the scoring rubrics, available online, will help
you and your students understand the components of a well-written answer. The scoring rubrics can also
be adapted for use in the classroom.

Teacher Tip » “Analyzing the test and rubrics enables me to better understand what the test is going to look like,” Brooks says. “That helps me talk about the test with my students.”

● Focus on education, not assessment. The new assessments are designed to measure students’ progress toward college and career readiness. The assessments are not meant to be the focal point of students’ education. So while it’s helpful to introduce your students to the assessment format and questions, don’t let test prep take over your classroom. Instead, focus on providing your students a quality education.

Teacher Tip » “Right now, I’m trying to look at the very big picture,” Betten says. “Instead of being test driven,
I try to be real-life driven. I ask myself and my students, ‘How will you use this math when you’re out of the classroom?’ I try to help them learn to think and to communicate their thoughts to others.” 


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