Bursting the Bubble Tests

Secretary Duncan, state education leaders and ED staff spoke to reporters today to announce $330 million in grants to develop better student assessments.

Secretary Duncan, state education leaders and ED staff spoke to reporters today to announce $330 million in grants to develop better student assessments.

Almost everywhere Secretary Duncan goes, complaints about “bubble tests” bubble up. Teachers are usually the first ones to bring up their issues with the ways states currently assess their students. We heard these criticisms over and over on our recent “Courage in the Classroom” tour.

“The number-one complaint I heard from teachers is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn’t measure what really matters,” Arne said on a call with reporters this afternoon where he announced $330 million in grants from the Race to the Top program so states can develop a new generation of more sophisticated assessments. The grants aim to give teachers the assessments they’ve been asking for—tests that measure students’ critical thinking and other higher-level skills, gauge student growth over the course of a school year and provide ongoing feedback to teachers so they can adjust their approaches.

What’s unique about the Race to the Top assessment grants is who gets them—not individual states, but large coalitions of states that will work together to develop common assessments measuring college and career readiness. Sharing the work will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, Arne said.

“Fifty states doing this individually (as they have historically done) has made no sense, whatsoever,” he said. All together, the 44 states in the funded coalitions, along with the District of Columbia, serve 85 percent of the nation’s public school students—and states not participating in a consortium are free to use the assessments that are developed.

The new generation of tests—Arne dubbed them “Assessments 2.0″—will be aligned to the higher standards that were recently developed by governors and chief state school officers and have been adopted by 36 states. The tests will assess students’ knowledge of mathematics and English language arts from third grade through high school. The assessments will be ready for use by the 2014-15 school year.

These more advanced assessments will replace tests currently in use and shouldn’t result in more time devoted to testing. “These tests will give us the tools to get better and smarter,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. In addition, he said, the tests will be “more thoughtful and more connected” to the more streamlined college- and career-ready standards that states have developed together.