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Education Reporter

'Common Core' Tests Ahead
Now that the new common standards in mathematics and English/language arts have been adopted by all but six states, the two state consortia tasked with developing the tests face concerns that expectations may outpace state technology resources and budgets.

The federal government gave the two groups — the 25-state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the 26-state Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — $360 million to design the tests and expects them to be fully operational for the 2014-2015 school year.

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Each consortium must develop end-of-year computer-based tests for each subject and grade level, along with optional interim benchmark tests that teachers can use to gauge student progress and adapt instruction during the year. The consortia's "visions of grandeur," as Utah's assessment director John Jesse characterized them, call for portals through which test results can be accessed and analyzed. There are plans for the difficulty level of questions to adapt as students progress through the test, for accommodations for limited English proficiency learners and kids with disabilities, and more.

"The amount of innovation we'll be able to carry off [by 2014] is not going to be that much," warned Joseph Willhoft, the executive director of SBAC. "There's an expectation that out of the gate this [testing] is going to be so game-changing, and maybe after four or five years it will be game-changing, but not immediately."

A major concern is whether school districts have the technological capacity to handle large-scale computer-based testing. For instance, if a school's internet router can't handle 60 or 70 computers at once, a social studies teacher trying to stream video during class could encounter problems if large numbers of students in another part of the building are taking tests.

Michael Russell, director of the Nimble Innovation lab at assessment company Measured Progress in Dover, New Hampshire, also warned the consortia that it might not be possible to deliver tests the same way on a tablet computer as a desktop "without measurement effects." That lack of flexibility is likely to increase pressure on districts to base technology purchases on test compatibility rather than a more comprehensive consideration of student and teacher needs.

The state of Virginia began implementing online assessments in 2000, and state officials advised the consortia to address even the most basic questions of capacity. They recounted how one rural district decided to charge the batteries in all its laptop computers overnight; the heating system in every building shut down because the electrical circuits were overloaded. (Virginia did not adopt the common standards or join either assessment consortium.)

Scott Norton, Louisiana's assistant state superintendent for student and school performance, is more worried about another aspect of the project. "The cost makes me the most anxious," he said.

Federal grants do not include funding for administering the tests long-term, and future expenses associated with the assessments are unpredictable. "In today's world if we have a [testing] cost problem, we own that," said Norton. "We can print on lighter paper or something. I'm not sure that holds up when we don't own it alone. If we get into a test we can't afford, we're really left holding the bag." (Education Week, 4-12-11 and 4-19-11).

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