Over two separate weekends in August and September of last year, 23 State Teachers of the Year each huddled for nearly 20 hours at a hotel in Chicago, Illinois. The teachers assembled to participate in a first-of-its-kind study: a deep and thorough analysis of the two new assessments used in 27 states in 2015 (named PARCC and Smarter Balanced) judged against previous tests used in several states.
Commissioned by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), the study found a marked preference for Smarter Balanced and PARCC. “There is a clear distinction between the previous exams and the new tests: the new tests better represent where we want students to go in terms of their educational success,’ explained Katherine Bassett, the Executive Director of NNSTOY and the 2000 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. “The teachers in this research study agree that these tests are a step forward, and we urge policymakers and educators alike to continue along this path toward higher-quality assessments.”
The study is considered unusual because even while teachers routinely administer tests and help students prepare, most teachers never have the opportunity to examine the full tests taken by their students side-by-side with former versions.
The teachers’ investigation included taking two old state exams and either the PARCC or Smarter Balanced reading or math test that were developed for fifth-grade students. Each teacher evaluated the test questions on a scale of one to four, depending on whether the answer required basic recall to higher-level analytical thinking. After the analysis of each test question, teachers then completed a 62-item survey. Finally, the teachers participated in a lengthy group discussion to analyze and compare the tests.
During the discussion, several teachers explained that they started the study with concerns about the new assessments, but after spending significant time with the actual tests, they found themselves advocating for either PARCC or Smarter Balanced.
Michael Funkhouser, the 2013 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, did not participate in the study but he was not surprised by its findings.
“My colleagues and I think Smarter Balanced is a better test,” Funkhouser said. “It is more difficult and more rigorous, but no one thought it was unfair. Comparing Smarter Balanced to the old West Virginia test is comparing apples to oranges. The first year, we established a baseline and we need a second and third year of testing to compare to see if students are making progress.”
Ultimately, the NNSTOY report identified five key differences between the new tests and the old exams that they replaced. The five key differences were:
- PARCC and Smarter Balanced more accurately test the level of knowledge and mastery of skills students should have in both math and reading.
- The two new tests measure four distinct levels of increasingly difficult thinking from Level I, which is a basic recall of facts, to Level II, which is marked by deep analysis and investigation.
- The two new tests better align with the kinds of strong instructional practices that expert teachers believe should be used in the classroom – such as collaborative learning.
- PARCC and Smarter Balanced better differentiate between mid-level and high-performing students than the previous assessments.
- Contrary to some public criticism, the participating teachers found that the new tests were more grade- and age-level appropriate than the old state tests.
To learn more about the NNSTOY study, go here.