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Race to the Top promises new era of standardized testing

As part of its Race to the Top competition, the U.S.

As part of its Race to the Top competition, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $330 million today to two coalitions of states to help them develop new ways of measuring whether students are on track to be ready for college and 21st -century careers.

“These new tests will be an absolute game-changer in public education,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in announcing the grants. “They’ll be better, smarter assessments — the kind of tests our teachers want and our students need.”

The testing systems will align with the new Common Core Standards in math and English language arts that nearly 40 states have already agreed to adopt. When the new tests are rolled out in 2014-15, the states in each coalition will be able to compare results with, and learn from, one another.

The coalitions – representing 44 states and the District of Columbia — say it will be an improvement over the current system of individual state standards and testing in several key ways:

  • Beyond multiple choice: Students’ skills in digital media, classroom speaking, and ability to apply reading and math knowledge to real-world problems would be measured in a variety of ways. Students might be asked, for instance, to design a park on a plot of land, using geometry to fit in the playing fields and financial literacy to create a budget.
  • Computer-based: Much of the testing will take place via computer, allowing teachers to get results more quickly. One coalition would use computer adaptive technology so that students at certain skill levels would skip to appropriate questions to more efficiently pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Evaluation throughout the year: Students, rather than simply takea state test near the end of the year, will be assessed at intervals, allowing them to show what they’ve learned in recent weeks and allowing teachers to adjust instruction. In holding their schools and teachers accountable, one coalition would incorporate test results from throughout the year, while the other would look only at the year-end test.
  • Buy-in from colleges: Higher-education leaders will help develop the high school level tests, and thousands of colleges have agreed use them as one indicator that students are ready for entry-level courses. The hope is that the new system will cut down on the giant need for remedial education on college campuses.

The federal money comes at a critical time, when states such as Massachusetts would have had to forgo scheduled revisions of their assessments because of budget constraints.

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Addressing concerns that this may lead to more testing, Secretary Duncan said students currently have to take a patchwork of local, district, and state tests, and the new system should lessen that redundancy. He also said the tests should be more connected to the kinds of classroom activities teachers find valuable, rather than requiring so much separate test-prep time.

FairTest, a Boston group concerned about high-stakes testing, says the new proposals won’t offer as much improvement as proponents suggest. “Computerized testing … has repeatedly shown it is not ready for prime time,” says FairTest spokesman Robert Schaeffer. And without a massive overhaul of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which keeps stalling in Congress, “the rich new data will be useless.”

The winning coalitions: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, representing 26 states; and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, representing 31 states. Some states are involved in both but will decide before 2014 which testing system to use.