Frequently Asked Questions

Smarter Balanced is a state-led consortium working collaboratively to develop assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that accurately measure student progress toward college and career readiness. The Consortium involves educators, researchers, policymakers, and community groups in a transparent and consensus-driven process to help all students thrive in a knowledge-driven global economy. The Consortium’s projects are funded through a four-year, $175 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education and generous contributions of charitable foundations.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $330 million to two groups of states—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—to develop a valid, reliable, and fair system of next-generation assessments. The new tests will assess students’ knowledge of mathematics and English language arts/literacy from third grade through high school. They will be aligned to the Common Core State Standards, developed by governors and chief state school officers and adopted by more than 40 states.

 

These assessments will provide educators, parents, and students with the information they need to continuously improve teaching and learning and help ensure that students graduate high school college- and career-ready. The assessments will serve all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities.

 

While federal funding currently supports the research and development work of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, all policy decisions about the structure and content of the assessments are made by the member states based on input from stakeholders across the county. At the conclusion of the federal grant in September 2014, Smarter Balanced will become an operational assessment system supported by its member states. The Consortium does not plan to seek additional funds from the U.S. Department of Education.

Smarter Balanced is a state-led consortium, and membership is open to all states, territories, and commonwealths of the United States, as well as the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). To join, states and territories agree to abide by a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the State’s Commissioner or Superintendent of Education, the Governor, and the President of the State School Board (if applicable). The MOU defines the Consortium’s governance and decision-making processes, describes how states may join or exit the Consortium, and specifies other membership requirements. In addition, all Smarter Balanced member states and territories must adopt academic standards in English and math that are designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace and that are substantially identical to the standards adopted across all states in the Consortium.

 

Smarter Balanced has become an independent operating unit of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. States that wish to remain members of Smarter Balanced will sign agreements with UCLA. The Consortium continues to be governed by its member states and is supported by member dues.

Both Smarter Balanced and PARCC are developing assessment systems aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English and math with the goal of preparing K-12 students for college and career. However, there are key differences between the two consortia. For example, Smarter Balanced assessments will use computer adaptive technology, while PARCC will use computerized assessments that are not adaptive. For a summary of both design approaches, see Coming Together to Raise Achievement: New Assessments for the Common Core State Standards, a white paper developed by Educational Testing Service.

Smarter Balanced is a consortium of states initially financed through Race to the Top funding and housed under the State of Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). In fall 2014, Smarter Balanced will transition to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), becoming an independent operating unit of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. UCLA will provide access to faculty expertise and research support and offer a full array of administrative services that the Consortium requires after the conclusion of the federal grant in 2014.

 

Smarter Balanced will continue to be a state-led organization committed to providing high-quality assessment tools and information to educators and policymakers in member states. The Consortium will not seek any additional U.S. Department of Education funding for development work. Rather, ongoing development and continuous improvement will be funded and governed by the member states and territories.

What will the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium provide?

Smarter Balanced has developed a fair and reliable system of assessments for English and math for grades 3-8 and 11 aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Administered online, these assessments provide an academic check-up and are designed to give teachers and parents better information to help students succeed. Smarter Balanced assessments will replace existing tests in English and math for grades 3-8 and high school in the 2014-2015 school year. The assessment system includes:

  • Digital Library – an online collection of resources aligned to the Common Core that help teachers improve classroom-based assessment practices. The Digital Library encourages collaboration and interaction, allowing teachers to rate materials and share their classroom experiences through online discussions. The Digital Library is available now to teachers.
  • Optional interim assessments to check student progress and provide information to help teachers plan and improve instruction. Schools will have two flexible administration options: Interim Comprehensive Assessments that mirror the year-end assessment; or Interim Assessment Blocks that focus on smaller sets of related standards and provide more detailed information for instructional purposes. The interim assessments will become available beginning in winter 2014-15 and can subsequently be used at any time during the school year.
  • Year-end summative assessments accurately describe both student achievement and growth of student learning in English and math. Summative assessments include a computer adaptive test and performance tasks that challenge students to apply their knowledge and skills to respond to real-world problems. The summative assessments will be administered in grades 3-8 and 11, and will be available to schools beginning in spring 2015.

To learn more, download a one-page overview of the Smarter Balanced assessment system.

The Smarter Balanced assessments are a key part of implementing the Common Core and preparing all students for success in college and careers. Administered online, these new assessments provide an academic check-up and are designed to give teachers and parents better information to help students succeed.

 

Smarter Balanced assessments will replace existing tests in English and math for grades 3-8 and high school in the 2014-15 school year. Scores from the new assessments represent a realistic baseline that provides a more accurate indicator for teachers, students, and parents as they work to meet the rigorous demands of college and career readiness.

 

For more information, visit the Parents & Students page.

Smarter Balanced is guided by the belief that a balanced, high-quality assessment system—including formative, interim, and summative components—can improve teaching and learning by providing information and tools for teachers and schools to help students succeed. Timely and meaningful assessment information can offer specific information about areas of performance so that teachers can follow up with targeted instruction, students can better target their own efforts, and administrators and policymakers can more fully understand what students know and can do, in order to guide curriculum and professional development decisions.

 

Smarter Balanced assessments offer significant improvements over tests of the past, including writing at every grade, new question types, and performance tasks that ask students to demonstrate an array of research, writing, and problem solving skills. Smarter Balanced assessments also make use of computer adaptive technology, which provides more accurate information about student achievement. Because the assessments are administered online, teachers, principals, and parents can receive results end-of-year assessments in weeks, not months. Faster results also mean that teachers can quickly use the information from optional interim assessments to check student progress and plan instruction during the year.

 

For more information, download the Smarter Balanced Theory of Action.

Smarter Balanced Governing States adopted the preliminary summative test blueprints in November 2012. The test blueprints include critical information about the number of items, score points, and depth of knowledge for items associated with each assessment target. Estimated testing times are available in a supporting document, Scoring Reporting and Estimated Testing Times. It is important to note that these are estimates of test length for most students. Smarter Balanced assessments are designed as untimed tests; some students may need and should be afforded more time. Smarter Balanced will use data collected through the Pilot and Field Tests to revise estimated testing times.

Smarter Balanced will offer limited retake opportunities on the summative assessment when state officials determine that the test was administered under non-standard circumstances.

Smarter Balanced has released cost estimates for its assessments that include expenses for ongoing research and development of the assessment system, as well as test administration and scoring. The end-of-year summative assessment alone is estimated to cost $22.50 per student. The full suite of summative and interim assessments and the Digital Library on formative assessment is estimated to cost $27.30 per student. These costs are less than the amount that two-thirds of the Consortium’s member states currently pay. These costs are estimates because a sizable portion of the cost is for test administration and scoring services that will not be provided by Smarter Balanced; states will either provide these services directly or procure them from vendors in the private sector.

Smarter Balanced is not developing end-of-course assessments. The 11th grade summative assessment will provide evidence that students are college- and career-ready. However, member states can create end-of-course assessments using Smarter Balanced test questions.

Smarter Balanced is collaborating with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) to ensure that there is comparability across the two assessments at the proficiency cut score for every grade. Both consortia will jointly engage with technical and policy advisors to study cross-consortia comparability.

Smarter Balanced has incrementally tested the content of the assessments and the technology that supports the assessments. Smarter Balanced has completed:

  • Cognitive Labs in 2012-13: Individual students provided feedback to test developers about their experience with the innovative test questions, accommodations for students with special needs, and the testing software.
  • Small-scale Trials in 2012-13: Promising types of questions and software features were further tried out with hundreds of students.
  • Pilot Test in spring 2013: More than 650,000 students at about 4,000 schools across the Consortium responded to a preliminary pool of test questions and performance tasks.
  • Field Test in spring 2014: More than 4.2 million students in grades 3-8 and 11—including a small sample of students in grades 9 and 10—participated in the Field Test. The Field Test was a full practice run of the assessment system that helped ensure that test questions are accurate and fair for all students. It also gave teachers and schools a chance to gauge their readiness in advance of the first operational assessment in spring 2015.

Yes. The Smarter Balanced Practice Test and the Training Test provide students with an early look at sets of assessment questions.

  • Practice Tests—The Practice Test allows teachers, students, parents, and other interested parties to experience a full grade-level assessment and gain insight into how Smarter Balanced will assess students’ mastery of the Common Core. The Practice Tests mirror the year-end assessment. Each grade level assessment includes a variety of question types and difficulty (approximately 30 items each in English and math) as well as an English and math performance task at each grade level (3–8 and 11). The May 2014 version of the Practice Tests include additional universal tools, designated supports, and accommodations that were not available in the previous version. All language supports, including translated glossaries and stacked Spanish translation, are available on mathematics Practice and Training Tests.
  • Training Tests—The Training Tests are designed to provide students and teachers with opportunities to quickly familiarize themselves with the software and navigational tools that they will use on the upcoming Smarter Balanced Field Test and/or the spring 2015 Smarter Balanced Assessments. The Training Test is organized by grade bands (grades 3 to 5, 6 to 8, and high school) and each test contains 14-15 questions. The questions on the Training Test were selected to provide students with an opportunity to practice a range of question types. The Training Tests do not contain performance tasks. Similar to the Practice Test, the Training Test includes all embedded universal tools, designated supports, and accommodations.

Performance tasks challenge students to apply their knowledge and skills to respond to real-world problems. They can best be described as collections of questions and activities that are coherently connected to a single theme or scenario. These activities are meant to measure capacities such as depth of understanding, research skills, and complex analysis, which cannot be adequately assessed with selected- or constructed-response items.

 

Performance tasks in reading, writing, and mathematics will be part of the Smarter Balanced summative, year-end assessment. Performance tasks can also be administered as part of the optional interim assessments throughout the year. The performance tasks will be delivered by computer (but will not be computer adaptive) and will take one to two class periods to complete.

 

To view assessment questions and performance tasks, take a Practice Test.

Developed voluntarily and cooperatively by 48 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia, the Common Core State Standards offer schools, teachers, students, and parents clear, understandable, and consistent standards in English and math. The CCSS defines the knowledge and skills students should take away from their K-12 schooling to be successfully prepared for postsecondary and career opportunities. More than 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards.

 

Teachers and parents need information about whether students are meeting the expectations set by the CCSS. Smarter Balanced is developing an assessment system that will measure mastery of the Common Core State Standards and provide timely information about student achievement and progress toward college and career readiness. Educators also have access to a Digital Library of formative assessment resources and tools that they can use in the classroom to address the individual needs of their students.

 

The writers of the Common Core, who included college and university faculty, began by defining the knowledge and skills in mathematics and ELA/literacy that students need to be ready to succeed in entry-level credit-bearing coursework and the high-skill workforce. To do this, the standards writers consulted existing college readiness benchmarks, research on student academic preparation, and surveys of business leaders, as well as content standards for top-performing states and countries. The standards-writers sought to create standards that are:

  • Aligned with college and work expectations;
  • Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
  • Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
  • Informed by top-performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
  • Evidence and/or research-based.

The standards were vetted by faculty around the country, including panels convened by the American Council on Education in collaboration with leading scholarly societies. Once college and career readiness standards were agreed upon, standards writers then created the grade level standards, “back-mapping” them to the college- and career-ready benchmarks. A survey of 1,800 faculty in an array of disciplines at a diverse set of institutions found substantial agreement that the CCSS define the knowledge and skills that students need to be ready for entry-level course work.

Smarter Balanced will not include science assessments at the time of implementation in the 2014-15 school year. However, it is likely that the online test delivery options selected by states (or the Consortium) will support the delivery of online test science assessments in the future—particularly in cases where the science assessments are comprised of selected-response items. Smarter Balanced will continue to monitor the development and adoption of science standards.

 

The Next Generation Science Standards are being developed by a partnership that includes The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve. For more information, visit: http://www.nextgenscience.org.

No. We believe that curriculum decisions are best made by educators at the local and state levels. States participating in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will have access to professional development materials and instructional resources for teachers through the Digital Library. These tools are optional and can be used, as needed, to complement state curriculum supports to districts and teachers.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment System will measure the full depth and breadth of the Common Core State Standards in English and math. The authors of the Common Core explicitly focused on the cognitive skills and knowledge that students need to be ready to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing, academic college courses and in workforce training programs. Critical-thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills are a major focus in the standards. Through innovative items and performance tasks, Smarter Balanced will measure these important skills.

 

However, the Common Core authors also note that the standards are not meant to encompass everything a student should learn, or describe all of the skills that students need in the 21st century. Indeed, academic readiness—as defined by the Common Core—is only part of a more comprehensive set of knowledge and skills that contribute to college and career readiness, such as work habits, persistence, and postsecondary planning.

Smarter Balanced has engaged teachers in the development of the assessment system in the following ways:

  • Smarter Balanced collaborated with more than 500 educators across the Consortium in the development of the interim and summative assessments. These teachers, recruited by member states, wrote test questions and participated in a review of questions for content, bias/sensitivity, and accessibility.
  • The Digital Library of instructional and professional learning resources for formative assessment has been developed by educators for educators. Nearly 2,000 educators, representing Smarter Balanced State Leadership Teams (SLTs) and State Networks of Educators (SNEs) in every member state are building this online collection of Common Core–aligned resources to support educators in improving teaching and learning.
  • Teachers are participating in achievement level setting process through an online panel and in-person workshops in fall 2014.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment System will provide accurate measures of achievement and growth for students with disabilities and English language learners. The assessments will address visual, auditory, and physical access barriers—allowing virtually all students to demonstrate what they know and can do.
 
In September 2013, Smarter Balanced Governing States unanimously approved Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines for the assessment system, which will shape the delivery of online testing for all students, including those with visual, auditory, linguistic, or physical needs. The guidelines were developed in collaboration with member states and nationally recognized experts on English language learners and students with disabilities. The research-based policy outlines three categories of resources to ensure that the assessments meet the needs of all students. The categories further distinguish between embedded tools included in the testing platform and non-embedded tools.

  1. A set of universal accessibility tools—such as a digital notepad and scratch paper—will be available to all students.
  2. Designated supports—like translated pop-up glossaries in 11 languages—will be made available to students for whom a need has been identified by school personnel familiar with each student’s needs and testing resources.
  3. Accommodations will be available to students with a documented need noted in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan. These tools include Braille and closed captioning, among others.

Our work is guided by the Smarter Balanced Technical Advisory Committee, as well as advisory panels for English language learners and students with disabilities. For more information, download the Accessibility and Accommodations factsheet and visit the Support for Under-Represented Students page.

Collaboration with higher education is critical to achieving the goal of better preparing students to enter college and the workforce. Representatives from higher education are involved in key design decisions—with the goal that colleges and universities across Smarter Balanced member states will accept the assessment as evidence that high school students are ready for entry-level, credit-bearing coursework.

 

Each member state has appointed a higher education lead to provide input in the development of the assessment system and coordinate outreach to higher education institutions. In addition, two higher education leaders hold seats on the Executive Committee and higher education representatives serve on Consortium work groups.

 

Smarter Balanced developed assessments aligned to the full depth and breadth of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Through its member states, and in consultation with the lead standards writers and other national education experts, Smarter Balanced translated the CCSS into assessment targets, test blueprints, and, ultimately, assessment items and performance tasks. The Consortium also will establish performance benchmarks that define the level of content and skill mastery that marks students as on track to college- and career-readiness at each grade level. These performance benchmarks will be determined through a deliberative and evidence-based Achievement Level Setting process, which will include input from K-12 educators and college and university faculty. Preliminary achievement levels will be established in fall 2014 after student data have been collected through pilot and field testing.

 

This Achievement Level Setting process has three phases:

  1. An Online Panel (scheduled for October 6–17, 2014) will allow thousands of K-12 educators, higher education faculty, parents, and other interested parties to participate virtually in recommending achievement levels.
  2. An In-Person Panel (October 13–19, 2014) with educators and other stakeholders working in grade-level teams will deliberate and make recommendations for the thresholds of the four achievement levels.
  3. A Cross-Grade Review Committee, a subset of the In-Person Panel, will examine recommendations across all grades to consider the reasonableness of the system of cut scores.

Visit the Achievement Level Setting page [insert link] for more information.

Achievement level descriptors (ALDs) are text statements that articulate the knowledge, skills, and abilities represented at different categories of performance on the Smarter Balanced assessments, including the college- and career-ready category for the high school assessment. They describe how students are progressing toward mastery of the Common Core State Standards and provide clear explanations of student performance for policymakers, educators, and parents.

 

Draft initial ALDs were developed in October 2012 by K-12 teachers and administrators and higher education faculty from two- and four-year colleges and universities representing Smarter Balanced Governing States. The ALDs are linked to an operational definition of college content-readiness, as well as a policy framework to guide score interpretation for high schools and colleges.

 

Following their initial development, both the ALDs and the definition of college content-readiness were revised based on a series of reviews from member states, partners, and individual stakeholders. The initial ALDs were approved by Governing States in March 2013, and the college content-readiness policy was approved in April 2013.

No. The 11th grade summative assessment is not designed to be a college admissions test. Rather, it is designed to help students and institutions of higher education better gauge which students leave high school with the English and mathematics knowledge and skills necessary for entry-level, transferable, credit-bearing work. That is a different question than whether or not students should be admitted. Colleges and universities often admit students who are not immediately ready for credit-bearing coursework. Additionally, colleges and universities vary in how much they rely upon the SAT and ACT—and in the scores on those tests they expect students to meet. Therefore, we believe institutions of higher education will continue to rely on scores from the SAT and ACT in the admissions process. Smarter Balanced is also coordinating with member states to determine how Smarter Balanced results can most effectively be reported to the colleges and universities students choose.

No. The Smarter Balanced assessments are not designed to serve the function of admission examinations. Use of Smarter Balanced assessment scores in admission decisions is ultimately a policy decision for higher education systems and institutions, but Smarter Balanced is not designing its assessments for this purpose.

College and university faculty play a very active role in establishing college- and career-ready standards for the 11th grade assessment. In addition to expert judgment from K-12 teachers and higher education faculty, Smarter Balanced will draw upon multiple sources of empirical data to guide the setting of performance standards, including: international and national benchmarks such as PISA, TIMSS, NAEP, SAT and ACT; and information about student performance in high school and subsequent postsecondary success from state-level longitudinal data systems.

Yes.  Smarter Balanced Governing States have agreed on a College Content-readiness Policy that guarantees exemption from developmental coursework to students who perform at an agreed-upon level on the grade 11 summative assessment and meet state requirements set jointly by K-12 and higher education for grade 12 course taking and performance.  In 2014-15, after the Field Test is complete and preliminary performance standards have been set, colleges and universities in Smarter Balanced Governing States will be asked to agree to abide by this policy beginning with students who enter college in fall 2016.  To help colleges and universities make this decision, Smarter Balanced will provide information on how scores on the grade 11 assessment compare to scores on commonly used admission and placement examinations and conduct a series of studies of predictive and consequential validity.

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A substantial research program has been designed and is being refined to validate and make adjustments to the college- and career-ready standard after administration begins in 2014-15. Because of the rigorous standard-setting process planned, it is anticipated that the initial college- and career-ready benchmark will be predictive of student performance in the first year of college. Nonetheless, it will be important to validate the standard, and make any necessary adjustments, once postsecondary performance data are available for students who have taken the Smarter Balanced assessments.

The Smarter Balanced assessment system capitalizes on the precision and efficiency of computer adaptive testing (CAT) for both the mandatory summative assessment and the optional interim assessments. This approach represents a significant improvement over traditional paper-and-pencil assessments used in many states today. Computer adaptive testing adjusts to a student’s ability by basing the difficulty of future questions on previous answers, providing more accurate measurement of student achievement, particularly for high and low-performing students. For more information, download a CAT factsheet and webinar.

Smarter Balanced will make a paper-and-pencil version of the summative assessment available during a three-year transition period. Both the paper-and-pencil and computer adaptive tests will follow the same test blueprint—meaning the same content areas and skills will be assessed. Smarter Balanced will conduct research to ensure that results are comparable across the two modes of assessment.

In December 2012, Smarter Balanced released a Technology Strategy Framework and System Requirements Specifications that provides minimum hardware specifications and basic bandwidth calculations that will allow schools and districts to evaluate which of their existing devices will support the administration of the assessments. The framework was developed with input and feedback from Smarter Balanced member states, work groups, and data from the Technology Readiness Tool, an online inventory of technology resources. Based on the research and data analysis, Smarter Balanced estimates that the majority of schools and districts in member states will be able to successfully administer the assessments with their existing infrastructure. For more information and to download the latest version of these specifications, visit our Technology page.

Smarter Balanced is committed to helping states transition successfully to the assessments. The assessments are being designed to work with the computing resources in schools today. The assessments can be offered on very old operating systems and require only the minimum processors and memory required to run the operating system itself (for example, the summative assessment can be delivered using computers with 233 MHz processors and 128 MB RAM that run Windows XP). Likewise, the file size for individual assessment items will be very small to minimize the network bandwidth necessary to deliver the assessment online. A 600-student middle school could test its students using only one 30-computer lab.

 

To assist states that have not yet made the transition to online testing, the Consortium also will offer a paper-and-pencil option for the first three years of operational testing. For more information about technology requirements, visit the Technology page.

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