New achievement levels for students
Next spring, Nevada’s students in grades 3 through 8 will take a historic step into the future of Nevada education when they take new state tests that are fully aligned to the Nevada Academic Content Standards for English language arts and mathematics. Nevada has been working with 21 other states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop these new tests, which will look very different from the Criterion Referenced Tests of Nevada’s past.
The new Smarter Balanced tests will be taken on computers instead of with paper and pencil and they are computer adaptive, which means that the computer program adjusts the difficulty of questions throughout the assessment, based on student responses.
The Smarter Balanced states, including Nevada, recently approved a set or recommendations on “achievement levels” that help to describe student performance on the new assessments. Nevada was actively involved in setting these achievement levels, and I was invited to join a team from Nevada at the in-person panel in October. During a meeting in Dallas, the Nevada team met with about 500 teachers, school leaders, higher education faculty parents, business and community leaders to review test questions and determine threshold scores for each grade and subject area. I was impressed by how thorough and transparent the process was, but I was also startled by the projection of how many students would fall short of proficiency marks under the recommended achievement levels.
Based on projections from the Smarter Balanced field test conducted in Nevada and 20 other states earlier this year, it is likely that fewer students will score at the higher achievement levels on the assessments, especially in the first few years. This drop in achievement will be hard to swallow, even in Nevada where our proficiency rates are lower than they should be. However, a drop in test scores doesn’t mean our students are sliding backwards or learning less. Rather, it means we now have a more accurate measure of where students are on the path to success, based on the higher standards and expectations we set to ensure that our students are challenged and prepared to compete nationally and globally. Think of it as a fresh start, an opportunity to hit the reset button.
Because our new standards set higher expectations for students and the new tests will assess student performance against those higher standards, the bar has been raised. Results should improve as students have more years of instruction based on the new standards. We have seen this pattern in several other states that adopted more rigorous standards years before Nevada did.
To be ready for college and careers, Nevada’s students need to master skills such as critical thinking, analytical writing and problem solving. The new assessments Nevada will be using have been specifically developed to measure these real-world skills. This is an exciting and challenging time for students and educators in Nevada. Our successful transition to the Smarter Balanced assessments is a critical step toward the goal of ensuring all students are ready for success after high school.
Mark Newburn is a member of the Nevada State Board of Education and attended a session of Smarter Balanced States in October that set achievement levels that align with the Nevada Academic Content Standards in English language arts and Math. The board is scheduled to vote on the new standards on Thursday.