We are in the midst of a significant sea change at all levels of elementary, middle, and secondary assessment, spurred by technology and focused beyond students’ mastery of specific content. Let’s review a few examples:
Example 1: Advanced Placement Exams
AP examinations are being dramatically overhauled in a multi-year process. As theNew York Times has reported, “The changes, which are to take effect in the 2012-13 school year, are part of a sweeping redesign of the entire A.P. program: the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.”
Example 2: Common Core Assessment
Forty-six states are scheduled to implement the new state standardized tests, known as PARCC and Smarter Balanced, in 2014-15. They are intended to be the fulfillment – though the jury is still out – of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s promise in 2010 to deliver Assessment 2.0, an entirely new generation of standardized testing. “For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learningthat are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.” There are two major testing features being addressed. First, Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT), currently embedded in Smarter Balanced, allows a test to configure to student proficiency. Second, performance task challenges present students with a problem. As Secretary Duncan described in 2010, “[Students] could be told, for example, to pretend they are a mayor who needs to reduce a city’s pollution—and must sift through a portfolio of tools and write analytically about how they would use them to solve the problem.”
Regular readers of EdWeek and other educational journals recognize that the new tests are the subject of much controversy, including how they’ll serve ELL and LD students, and whether they will come anywhere near fulfilling their ambitious goals – particularly given the time required for the test-taking and for the funds required in assessing the answers. Despite the issues, this will represent a major change. According to a recent analysis by a UCLA research center (Cresst Report PDF) whereas only 3-10% of US elementary and secondary students are assessed on deeper learning on at least one state assessment, if the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments do end up reflecting their content specifications, “fully 100% of students in tested grades using [the new] consortia tests will be held accountable for deeper learning.”
Example 3: The Gordon Commission
Edweek reported last month about the research of the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, “a panel of top education research and policy experts that was launched in 2011 with initial funding from the Educational Testing Service.”
The Gordon Commission calls upon educators to rethink assessment away from exclusive focus on summative high-stakes results and move toward “systems of aligned assessments, which would inform instruction through a balance of fine-grained classroom diagnostic tests, challenging tasks and projects, and even analytic tools to sift through background data produced by students in the classroom or online.”
Example 4: Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) releases a report ranking nations on the quality of their academic program. This is the yardstick by which the extraordinary and fascinating success of Finland’s education system was measured. For the first time ever, PISA is making its OECD test available to individual schools and districts as a vehicle to measure their educational effectiveness against international standards. Tom Friedman wrote in his New York Times column earlier this month that the new test “is comparable to PISA and measures how well students can apply their mastery of reading, math, and science to real world problems.”
While these examples do not focus on a single assessment area, it is apparent that the shift in assessment for the future is in the direction of application and transfer of knowledge, in creative and complex problem-solving, in favoring thinking skills over content knowledge, and in positioning thinking tasks in real-world scenarios.
So, what are the implications for admission testing?
About a month ago, the admission world experienced a jolt. On February 25, 2013, The College Board announced that their most widely used college admission test – the SAT – was being redeveloped to become “a more innovative assessment that sharply focuses on a core set of knowledge and skills that are essential for readiness, access, and success.” This announcement is just one more step in the ongoing shift of the SAT, increasingly away from academic aptitude and toward academic achievement.
The College Board has a new President, David Coleman, and he is showing no reluctance to challenge the SAT’s status quo. In his previous leadership role, Coleman managed the development of the Common Core State Standards, and his intention to shift the SAT toward closer alignment with the new CCSS is no surprise. The planned changes are still short on specifics. However, Coleman has given a few clues to where the new SAT will go: “We will develop an assessment that mirrors the work that students will do in college so that they will practice the work they need to do to complete college. An improved SAT will strongly focus on the core knowledge and skills that evidence shows are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college and career.”
At the USC conference members of the Think Tank attended in January, Coleman explained that it is essential that the new SAT shift toward building instruments which predict likelihood of college completion, not just first year GPA. More than 1.66 million students took the SAT last year, making it the largest class of SAT takers in history. And the pool of test takers has become increasingly diverse, with rising numbers of low-income, African American and Hispanic students taking the exam (thus fulfilling the SAT’s initial social promise). Yet in 2011, the number of students who took the ACT surpassed the SAT for the first time, and Coleman suggested in his email that one reason for the makeover is to ensure that the SAT is “relevant.” In other words, decreases in SAT business, marketplace preferences, and future business opportunities (i.e. the growing K-12 achievement market) are behind many of the changes happening at The College Board.
Surely, technological advances will spur innovations in admission testing – as seen in the new options for item types, scaling models, and user interfaces. But it remains to be seen how this “sea change” in learning assessment will affect admission testing. If the SAT is moving closer to a test measuring student progress against a curricular map, then all bets are off as to the assessment of academic aptitude and the offer of a standard measure not tied to a student’s access to a specific educational program. These very issues will continue to be considered by SSATB’s Think Tank as we build our portfolio on the future of assessment for independent school admission.
Report from the Field:
New Canaan Country School (CT) has always placed a high priority on developing student character. As Admissions Director Nancy Hayes, a member of our Think Tank on the Future of Admissions Assessment, describes her school, “Personal and social responsibility has always been integral to its work and woven into the fabric of what we teach and how we teach.”
Accordingly, under Nancy’s leadership, admissions assessment has evolved to help highlight and appreciate this part of their community, in particular with an innovative approach for evaluating applicants to grades five and six.
The process begins, as it does for nearly every SSAT member school, with the ‘standard’ admission components: an application, school transcripts and reports, standardized testing, parent visit/interview, a written parent statement and a written student statement. All these are certainly still important to their process.
On group visit days, applicants are divided into groups of 10-12 to spend three hours with Country School faculty members, teachers who have not read the files for these students before they meet them– because it is desired they view applicants without any preconceptions. Each group begins by reading a passage together, taking turns reading aloud, and then discussing, giving an opportunity to look for empathy, curiosity, creative thinking, sensitivity, acceptance of others’ ideas. Students then play a Math game as a group, with observers noting whether students can build on other’s ideas in solving questions.
Country School is rightly proud of its longstanding Outdoor Action Program. Admissions assessments happen in mid-winter, so they can’t really go outside, but they’ve charmingly adapted some of their “Project Adventure” for use in the gym. Nancy reports that these activities “give us a tremendous amount of information about individuals: how they approach problem solving, how they team and collaborate, and more.”
One example: students work in two groups and the gym becomes an ocean of dangerous waters and each group has to determine a way to get the entire group across to the ‘safety’ of an ‘island oasis’ across the gym floor. Each group is given the same implements: a short rope, a small scooter, a couple of lily pads that provide safe haven as you cross – really minimal implements. Faculty members stand back and watch as each group discusses, plan, tries and fails and tries again. The goal is to get everyone across in a certain amount of time. Nancy: “It is so interesting to see who works for the whole group and who is only concerned with getting themselves across: this tells us a lot.”
In the debriefs after the activities, each applicant is evaluated by the admissions committee faculty observers on the following criteria:
- Problem-solving, particularly creative/out of the box thinking.
- Respect for and inclusion of others.
- Enthusiasm and eagerness for exploring ideas.
- Synthesis of information.
- Resilience and Perseverance.
- Attentiveness and focus.
She reports, “We think that in combination with the academic pieces, this info has strong predictive power. We work hard in our committee deliberations to make certain we are considering the whole child and what kind of a community member he or she would be. We have certainly made great progress in really building a community, not just taking the obviously capable student.”
Perhaps just as importantly, she says, they believe this assessment goes beyond evaluation to true representation of the spirit and mission of their school: “we are truly energized by the interactions ourselves and think it gives the applicants a good sense of who we are as well as giving us some great peeks into personalities.