Race to the Top grants go to groups developing new student assessment strategies

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 8:44 PM

The federal government awarded $330 million Thursday to two groups that are developing new student assessment systems for the District, Maryland and dozens of other states in an effort to upgrade their much-maligned standardized tests.

Drawn from the Obama administration's $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, the grants aim to build on the fast-growing movement toward national standards in English and math. With new expectations for what students should learn come new hopes for improving how their achievement is measured.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers - a consortium that includes the District, Maryland and 24 other states - would receive $170 million. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, representing 31 states, would receive $160 million.

There is some overlap among the two groups. Virginia and five other states are not participating.

The first group, according to the Education Department, seeks to assess how students read complex texts, complete research projects, handle classroom speaking and listening assignments, and work with digital media. It would potentially replace single, high-stakes tests with a series of assessments to be averaged into one score for accountability purposes.

The second group would assess students through computer-adaptive technology, with a sequence of questions that would vary based on student answers. It would develop both interim tests and a single, high-stakes test.

"As I travel around the country the number one complaint I hear from teachers is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn't measure what really matters," Duncan said in a statement. "Both of these winning applicants are planning to develop assessments that will move us far beyond this and measure real student knowledge and skills."

The goal is to launch new testing systems in the 2014-15 school year. Locally, the new tests could replace the Maryland School Assessments, known as the MSAs, and the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC-CAS. Maryland and the District have joined a majority of states that have adopted the first comprehensive national academic standards.

In Virginia, which has not joined the movement, state officials have said they prefer to rely on their Standards of Learning testing and accountability program. Critics elsewhere have suggested that national standards will erode state and local control of schools. But Obama officials said Thursday's announcement does not presage a federal takeover of testing systems.

Other states not participating in the test-development groups are Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming.

Duncan visited Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School on Thursday morning to talk with teachers.

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