Smarter Balanced Assessments: Keep results in perspective for students and their families

by Kathy Caric

With the release of California’s new Common Core-aligned test results for students from the third through the eighth grades, and 11th graders, the following is a perspective from the front lines. The commentary originally appeared as a From the Field piece in California Schools magazine.

In the coming years, California’s students will be graduating from high school into a 21st century world where the college and career environments demand innovative, technologically literate individuals who are critical thinkers and problem solvers. Recognizing this, California has developed a comprehensive plan for a public school education system to equip students to meet these demands and is in the early stages of implementation. The statewide plan is focused on preparing all students to reach their potential, graduating with the skills and knowledge necessary for success in college and career environments. The plan has multiple components, including new and/or expanded:

  • Content standards and curriculum
  • Ways of teaching
  • Instructional materials
  • Methods of assessing student learning

Over the next few years, each component will be fully implemented across the state.

The new statewide assessment system, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, is one element of the statewide comprehensive plan. The primary purpose of this statewide testing program is to promote high-quality teaching and learning in order to improve outcomes for all students. Students across California have participated in the first administration of CAASPP this spring. The Smarter Balanced English language arts/ literacy and mathematics tests are part of CAASPP, and results from those assessments will soon be available to districts. Since this is the first year that results from the tests will be provided, the information will establish a baseline for the progress students are expected to make. Based on the 2014 Smarter Balanced Field Test in California and several other states, many students will need to make significant progress to meet the standards set for ELA and mathematics that represent college and career readiness. As students have more experience with the new curriculum and assessments over the next few years, they will likely demonstrate increased 21st century skills and knowledge on statewide assessments.

Social-emotional Impact of Results

Due to the increased rigor of the content standards and the Smarter Balanced ELA and mathematics assessments, students may find that the Individual Student Report they receive indicates that they are not achieving at standard for their grade levels. For many students, this may be discouraging and could have a negative impact on their self-image, attitude and engagement in the learning process.

What can educators and parents do to prevent or mitigate the potential negative impact of Smarter Balanced assessment results on students? What are the key messages that need to be communicated to students about the Smarter Balanced individual student results?

Key Messages for Sharing Individual Student Results

The overarching message on the Smarter Balanced summative assessments is that student success as learners is not defined by test results. Educators and parents should stress that statewide assessment information is just one source of data that can be used to determine academic progress and improve classroom teaching and learning.

When sharing Smarter Balanced summative assessment results with students, teachers and parents should emphasize the importance of information from student performance on daily learning activities, projects, Smarter Balanced Interim and classroom assessments. Teachers and parents can point out that there are opportunities to check for understanding and progress throughout every school day, and that those checks are most useful for continuously adjusting learning goals and teaching and learning strategies. For example, when a pilot is landing an airplane, the windsock tells him which direction the wind is blowing, but he needs much more specific and detailed information to be able to safely land the aircraft. As he is flying, the pilot gets that more detailed information from gauges on the instrument panel in the cockpit of the plane. The Smarter Balanced assessment results are similar to the windsock — they provide “big picture” information on whether the student is above, at, near or below standard for grade level content. However, the information gathered from classroom learning activities and assessments (the instrument panel in the classroom “cockpit”) is what helps teachers and students track progress continuously and determine next steps. For example, a student may be identified on the Smarter Balanced Individual Student Report as achieving below standard on the reading claim, but what components of the reading process account for a below standard achievement level? Fluency? Comprehension? Ability to cite evidence from text? Specific, more detailed information is needed to determine what reading skills need to be strengthened. That deeper level of information comes from daily classroom learning activities and local assessments gathered by the teacher and student during the learning process. In talking with students, educators and parents should emphasize that the Smarter Balanced results are the equivalent to a windsock and classroom learning and assessment information are the gauges on the instrument panel critical for use to guide the learning progress. Both sources of information have value for enhancing the teaching and learning process and improving student success.

If educators and parents express and model the belief that the Smarter Balanced summative results are just one of multiple measures to be used to monitor student learning progress, students will be more likely to put the test results in proper perspective. If the adults in the system make the statewide test results a “big deal,” students will react to them as a “big deal.”

The message should be that learning is a continuous process and students improve by checking their understanding frequently and then making adjustments. This will help students put the results of the Smarter Balanced assessments in proper perspective and reassure the students that their success as learners is not determined by statewide assessments alone.

Communication Strategies

Many Local Education Agencies have already developed a local communication plan in preparation for the upcoming dissemination of Smarter Balanced assessment results, while others are in the plan development process. In either case, to proactively prevent or mitigate a potentially negative social-emotional impact of those results on students, it important to include key messages. Be sure to:

  • Include students as a stakeholder group when developing local plans
  • Develop key messages to be emphasized in conversations with students
  • Train district staff on the purpose, process and need for consistency in the delivery of key messages
  • Set the district expectation that these critical messages will be part of ongoing, recurring conversations with students throughout the school year, not just when statewide testing results arrive
  • Engage parents as partners in communicating the belief that statewide assessment results are just one of many tools used to track student achievement and adjust the teaching and learning process to better meet the needs of students
  • Use superintendent, principal and teacher newsletters as a strategy for getting the messages out to students, parents and the community
  • Employ deliberate planning to ensure the consistency of successful communication with students on the Smarter Balanced individual student results.

The California Department of Education and the Smarter Balanced Consortium have developed communication toolkits to support this work. Resources can be found at:

Smarter Balanced Communications Tools
Smarter Balanced Assessment Systems

In Summary

The results from the CAASPP statewide assessment system, including the Smarter Balanced ELA and mathematics assessments, will soon be provided to LEAs across the state. Individual Student Reports are scheduled to be available August 2015. The reports will give baseline data regarding student achievement in the new California public education system. The increased rigor of the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced ELA and mathematics assessments will likely mean that many students will achieve below standard for their grade levels on those assessments. To prevent this information from having a negative impact on the self-image and attitude of students and on their active engagement in the learning process, it will be important for LEAs to be proactive in communicating results to students. Key messages can be formulated and shared with students to help them put the statewide assessment results in proper perspective, and learn how to use multiple sources of information about their learning to increase their achievement. Cultivating and nurturing in students a positive view of themselves as learners by actively engaging them as participants in the learning process, which includes interpreting their own achievement data for growth, will contribute to the 21st century skills and knowledge required for college and career success.

Kathy-1Kathy Caric has been working in public education for more than 40 years. She retired from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office in 2012. Currently, she is faculty for Point Loma Nazarene University Graduate School of Education, Bakersfield Center.