New web-based state assessments to emphasize critical thinking, problem-solving

Next-generation assessments are coming soon to a classroom near you.

Over the last few years, California has introduced new instructional standards emphasizing critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical writing in addition to subject knowledge. And with those new standards comes the need for fresh assessments to determine what students know, how well they’re learning and what supports they’ll need to succeed in college and beyond.

students on computersModernized exams created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium were designed to do just that, and this spring they’re replacing some of the older paper-based, multiple-choice tests that have long reigned the arena of public school accountability. The new assessments will be taken online in grades 3 through 8 and 11, measuring student knowledge of English and math standards. And they’ll use adaptive technologies that offer a customized experience for test-takers while providing more precise data to indicate which skills and content areas have been mastered.

The Smarter Balanced tests will provide critical feedback to show whether students are on track to successfully pursue colleges and careers after graduation, and teachers and schools will be able to access the results quicker than ever. But because they are fundamentally different from previous exams, they won’t initially allow for any reliable year-to-year comparisons. Instead, this year’s scores will serve as a baseline for measuring progress over time, according to Christine Olmstead, the Orange County Department of Education’s assistant superintendent of instructional services.

“These new assessments are an important step in a comprehensive plan to engage in teaching and learning at a deeper level and to effectively evaluate our practices,” she said. “We believe the data gathered will help guide and refine instruction in a manner that leads to improved outcomes for all students.”

Olmstead acknowledged that the Smarter Balanced tests may look different to students and educators, and early performance expectations should be tempered as the first scores establish baselines for measuring growth. But the results will present immediate opportunities for identifying the strengths and focusing on the needs of each student.

“We will have the ability to gauge essential 21st-century capacities such as critical thinking and problem-solving, and our teachers and administrators will have timely and actionable information on which to drive curriculum and instruction decisions,” Olmstead said.

In 2014, California suspended its older standardized testing program to give teachers more time to prepare for this year’s roll-out — and to focus on Common Core implementation. In the meantime, a number of districts in Orange County and across the state helped field-test the new assessments.

For more information about Smarter Balanced assessments and to take a practice test, click here.