Frequently Asked Questions
Smarter Balanced is a state-led consortium working collaboratively to develop next-generation 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, comprising 99 percent of activity resources, with the remaining support provided through 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.
Smarter Balanced is committed to delivering a fully functional assessment system that will be ready for implementation in the 2014-15 school year. In addition, Smarter Balanced is supporting member states as they implement the Common Core State Standards. Tools and resources for educators will be posted online in 2012 and incorporated into the digital library as part of the assessment system.
All students deserve an education that prepares them for their next step in life—whether that’s going on to postsecondary education or starting a career. The Smarter Balanced assessment system will give parents and students accurate information about whether students are on track to graduate high school ready for college and the workplace. It will provide teachers with resources to tailor instruction to student needs through a digital library of instructional best practices. Importantly, educators will be able to easily compare student achievement between schools, districts, and states to ensure that students are making progress.
For more information, visit the Parents & Students page.
Smarter Balanced is a state-led consortium, and membership is open to any state. To join, states 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 must have adopted the Common Core State Standards by December 31, 2011. To continue as a member after the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, a state must agree to use the Consortium’s tests as its federal accountability assessments.
The cost of developing the Smarter Balanced assessment system is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Assessment Program. After development is complete, most states can expect to spend less on Smarter Balanced assessments than they do on current assessments. The projected per pupil cost for the summative assessment is $19.81, while the interim assessments are expected to cost $7.50—for a total of $27.31 per student.
Among the 31 states that provided estimates of their current spending on assessments as part of the Smarter Balanced grant proposal, the average per student cost was $31.00. Smarter Balanced will make updated cost estimates available as the development of the assessment system progresses.
Both Smarter Balanced and PARCC are developing assessment systems aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts/literacy and mathematics 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.
By 2014, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will develop a fair and reliable system of next-generation assessments for English language arts/literacy and mathematics for grades 3-8 and 11 aligned to Common Core State Standards. These assessments will be administered online, allowing for timely results that will provide information to teachers to help differentiate instruction. The assessment system will include:
- A computer adaptive summative assessment administered during the last 12 weeks of the school year. This assessment can be used to describe student achievement and growth of student learning as part of program evaluation and school, district, and state accountability systems.
- Optional computer adaptive interim assessments administered at locally determined intervals. These assessments provide information about student progress throughout the year.
- Formative tools and resources that help teachers differentiate instruction and meet the unique needs of each student.
- An online tailored reporting system that provides access information about student progress toward college and career readiness.
To learn more, download a one-page overview of the Consortium.
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 make use of computer adaptive technology, which is more precise and efficient than fixed-form testing. Teachers, principals, and parents can receive results from computerized assessments in weeks, not months. Faster results mean that teachers can use the information from optional interim assessments throughout the school year to differentiate instruction and better meet the unique needs of their students.
Smarter Balanced assessments will go beyond multiple-choice questions and include short constructed response, extended constructed response, and performance tasks that allow students to complete an in-depth project that demonstrate analytical skills and real-world problem solving.
For more information, download the Smarter Balanced Theory of Action.
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.
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
Smarter Balanced will offer a retake opportunity on the CAT portion of the summative assessment for students who feel their scores are inaccurate or that believe the test was administered under non-standard circumstances.
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, Smarter Balanced will develop software to allow states to create end-of-course assessments using the interim item bank.
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 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.
The Smarter Balanced assessment system will measure the full depth and breadth of the Common Core State Standards in ELA/literacy and mathematics. 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 created a Sustainability Task Force that will develop recommendations about how states will procure, administer, and maintain the Smarter Balanced assessment system after the federal grant ends in 2014. The 13-member task force will include the following representatives:
- State chief who will serve as co-facilitator with the Smarter Balanced chief operating officer (1)
- State chiefs to serve as task force members at large (2)
- Governors/aides (2)
- State leads (2)
- State procurement experts (2)
- State central information officers (2)
- Higher education representatives (2)
While the exact structure of Smarter Balanced after 2014 has not yet been determined, member states will be actively involved in determining the future direction of the Consortium.
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.
Smarter Balanced recently released assessment sample items and performance tasks that illustrate the variety of innovative item types students will encounter on the Smarter Balanced assessments. Developed in collaboration with educators and content experts, the sample items and tasks are meant to help teachers, administrators, and policymakers better understand the Common Core State Standards and prepare for the implementation of the Smarter Balanced assessments.
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 a digital library. These tools are optional and can be used, as needed, to complement state curriculum supports to districts and teachers.
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 language arts and mathematics. 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 40 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 will also have access to a robust 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 CCSS, 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 College and Career-ready Standards were vetted by faculty around the country, including panels convened by the American Council on Education in collaboration with leading scholarly societies. Once the College- and Career-ready Standards were agreed upon, standards writers then created the grade level standards, “back-mapping” them to the college- and career-ready benchmarks. A recent 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 is committed to assisting states as they implement the Common Core State Standards. These efforts include:
- Funded membership for Governing States in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) Implementing the Common Core Standards (ICCS) state collaborative. Participation in this collaborative provided an opportunity for states to develop plans to assist students and teachers in implementing the Common Core State Standards.
- Participating in collaborative efforts, such as the Math Common Core Coalition, whose members also include: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE), the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics (ASSM), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Governors Association (NGA), and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
- Developing a digital library of formative assessment practices and professional development resources aligned to the CCSS. The library will include examples of instructional best practices at each grade level, strategies for cross-classroom collaboration, and professional development resources related to the assessment system, such as scoring rubrics for performance tasks.
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.
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.
Smarter Balanced is developing 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 is translating 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 college- and career-ready. These performance benchmarks will be determined through a deliberative and evidence-based standard-setting process, which will include input from K-12 educators and college and university faculty. Preliminary performance standards will be established in 2014 after student data have been collected through pilot and field testing. Following the Field Test in spring 2014, the Consortium will conduct standard setting for the summative assessments in grades 3–8 and grade 11 in ELA/literacy and mathematics. These performance standards will be validated in July/August 2015 using spring 2015 operational data
Higher education leads will work with college and university faculty to play a very active role in this process, with higher education representatives playing a primary 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.
A substantial research program has been designed and is being refined to validate and make adjustments to the college- and career-ready standard after full-scale 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.
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.
Smarter Balanced has developed an inclusive, collaborative process for drafting initial ALDs in collaboration with K-12 teachers and higher education faculty nominated by member states, as well as content experts. Draft ALDs will be available for feedback begining late November 2012. Preliminary ALDs are expected to be finalized by March 2013 by Governing States. For more information, click here to download an overview of the ALD development process.
Smarter Balanced is committed to engaging teachers in the design of an assessment system that provides resources and information to improve teaching and learning. Teachers are helping write and review assessment items and performance tasks for the Pilot Test of the assessment system in early 2013. Teachers will also contribute to the development of items for the Field Test in early 2014. More information about item development is available in a series of online trainings for item writers and reviewers.
In addition, Smarter Balanced will recruit teams of teachers from each state to evaluate formative assessment tools and resources and contribute to professional learning resources available through the assessment system. Finally, teachers will score parts of the assessments, including extended response and performance tasks.
Smarter Balanced will conduct a Pilot Test of the assessment system beginning in February 2013. The Pilot Test will include items and performance tasks currently under development and will provide information about how these items and tasks perform in a real-world setting. Participation in the Pilot Test will be open to all schools in the Consortium and will include students from grades 3-11. Additional information about how to participate in the Pilot Test will be made available to states in November 2012.
Smarter Balanced is committed to involving teachers in the development and vetting of formative assessment practices and professional learning opportunities. Beginning in the 2012-13 school year, Smarter Balanced will convene State Leadership Teams charged with recruiting an average of 100 educators per state to form State Networks of Educators. These educator networks will provide feedback on the development of formative assessment resources and professional learning tools. They will also serve as ambassadors to help states engage stakeholders with resources and trainings to understand and interpret assessment results. It is expected that states will work with existing networks for professional development, and will invite the regional representatives of professional organizations to recommend teachers to participate in the sessions. Additional information will be available in early 2013. For more information about the development of formative assessment resources, download the Formative Assessment Master Work Plan.
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 is committed to helping states transition successfully to next-generation assessments. Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have collaborated on a Technology Readiness Tool to help states identify infrastructure gaps and plan for future needs.
The Technology Readiness Tool allows schools to capture and report key readiness indicators, including: number and type of computers; local network and bandwidth infrastructure; and local staff resources and other information needed to evaluate overall technology readiness for the coming transition to digital delivery of assessments.
The first data collection window served as a baseline inventory of technology and supporting infrastructure that will inform policy and improvements of the tool. Subsequent data collection is scheduled for fall 2012, spring 2013, fall 2013, spring 2014, and summer 2014. For more information about technology requirements, visit the Technology page.
Smarter Balanced is working with member states to develop comprehensive minimum technology requirements detailing bandwidth, hardware, and operating system specifications for devices eligible to administer the assessments beginning in the 2014-15 school year. These guidelines will be informed by the results of the Technology Readiness Tool and are expected to be released in late 2012.
To help schools and districts make instructional technology purchases over the next two years, Smarter Balanced has developed new hardware purchasing guidelines. These hardware and operating system guidelines are meant to inform current and future purchasing decisions to ensure that new devices are compatible with the Smarter Balanced assessment system in 2014-15.