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.


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.


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 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 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 language arts and mathematics 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 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, interim, and formative assessments 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 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.



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 has incrementally tested the content of the assessment and the technology that will support the assessment. Smarter Balanced has already completed:

  • Cognitive Labs:  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: Promising types of questions and software features were further tried out with hundreds of students.
  • Pilot Test: Students at about 5,000 schools across the Consortium responded to a preliminary pool of test questions and performance tasks.

In spring 2014, the Consortium will conduct its Field Test to present the entire pool of Smarter Balanced items to students across member states. The Field Test is expected to involve students in about 15 to 20 percent of Consortium schools, and will gather the information necessary for final evaluation of item quality.


In April 2013, Smarter Balanced released online Practice Tests that provide an early look at sets of assessment questions aligned to the Common Core for grades 3–8 and 11 in both English language arts/literacy and mathematics. The Practice Tests allow teachers, students, parents, and other interested parties to experience the features of online testing and gain insight into how Smarter Balanced will assess students’ mastery of the Common Core.


In October, 2012, Smarter Balanced released sample items and performance tasks that illustrate the variety of innovative item types students will encounter on 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.


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. To download the ALDs and college content-readiness policy, click here.


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 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 is a consortium of states initially financed through Race to the Top funding.  It is currently housed under the State of Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and is planning a transition to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a unit operating under the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Although the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST)  is also a UCLA organization, it will remain an independent research and development institute. This approach 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 our member states. We will not be seeking any additional federal funding for development work. Rather, our ongoing development and continuous improvement will be integrated into our overall sustainability efforts, all of which will be governed by the decisions of our member states and territories.


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.


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.


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.

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:


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.


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 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 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 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


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 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


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 prepared for entry-level, transferable, credit-bearing work in English and mathematics. 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.


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.


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 as schools and districts upgrade their technology. 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 next-generation 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 specifications, visit our Technology page.


Smarter Balanced is committed to helping states transition successfully to next-generation 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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