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Common Core test questions
In this April 30, 2015 photo, students line up to take part in new Common Core-aligned standardized tests at the Cuyama Valley High School in New Cuyama, Calif. The Cuyama Joint Unified School District is 60 miles from the nearest city and has Internet connections about one-tenth the minimum speed recommended for the modern U.S. classroom. Across the country, school districts in rural areas and other pockets with low bandwidth are confronting a difficult task of administering new Common Core-aligned standardized tests to students online. Credit: AP Photo/Christine Armario

You are a congresswoman’s chief-of-staff and she needs your help coming up with a position on whether a nuclear power plant should be built in the district.

These are the kinds of prompts students across the country are being presented with during the first round of Common Core testing this spring.

In this example — from Smarter Balanced, one of two state groups tapped by the federal government to develop tests aligned to Common Core — students would be given a mix of articles, videos and data charts to inform an argumentative essay for or against the construction of the plant.

Smarter Balanced calls questions like these “performance tasks,” while the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — the other federally sponsored group that developed the Common Core exams — has called these more in-depth tasks “performance-based assessments.” These activities are at the crux of the argument that the new tests will be better than the multiple-choice-heavy exams of the past that, critics say, prized rote memorization over critical-thinking skills. But they’re not perfect. They are time-consuming and are harder and more expensive to score.

Related: What this spring’s Common Core tests promised, and what they will actually deliver

Derek Briggs, professor and program chair at the Research & Evaluation Methodology Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, said they are worth the trade-offs.

“To get at what’s really fundamental in the Common Core, the higher-order thinking skills, we need performance-based tasks,” said Briggs, who advised both Smarter Balanced and PARCC on the design of the new tests.

“To get at what’s really fundamental in the Common Core, the higher order thinking skills, we need performance-based tasks.”

On the English exams, the performance sections ask students to write persuasively using information gathered from multiple sources. In math, students tackle multistep problems designed to test strategic-thinking skills.

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced are administrating the performance tasks separately from the more traditional-looking end-of-year tests. So, in addition to the multiple-choice-heavy parts of the tests, which can take up to almost five hours (depending on the test and grade level), the performance tasks add up to 4 ½ hours to the Smarter Balanced tests and 6 ½ hours to the PARCC tests.

Smarter Balanced performance tasks include 30-minute classroom activities — one for the math section and one for the English section — in which students, for example, learn about and discuss nuclear power before they start the writing assignment.

Barry Covington, an English teacher at Salinas High School in California, said that the Smarter Balanced tests are too long.

“We did an activity about intellectual property, which briefed them on certain vocabulary that they might run into,” said Covington. “They then had to choose to write one of three essays. I think the kids realized they were spending a lot of time on these tests that they could be spending on other things. We’ve lost two weeks to testing, right in the middle of reading ‘The Great Gatsby.’” *

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and senior research advisor to Smarter Balanced, said that the inclusion of the more in-depth questions makes up for some of what was lost after the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which emphasized using standardized test scores to hold schools accountable for student learning. Research found that many states dumbed down their standardized tests, relying mainly on simple multiple-choice exams that in many cases got easier as the stakes got higher.

“Before No Child Left Behind, Vermont, Indiana and Kentucky had students write in different genres and assessed their work. Connecticut and New York had multiday science activities,” said Darling-Hammond. “With Smarter Balanced, the performance tasks will only take about 180 minutes over one or two class periods. But they will be meaty tasks figuring out complex problems and asking students why they made a decision. This will begin to approach what some states were doing in the 1990s.”

Related: Stakes for ‘high-stakes’ tests are actually pretty low

Only 29 out of the 44 states that originally formed either the Smarter Balanced or PARCC consortia are still administering those tests, however. Briggs said that the tests the other 15 states have opted for will be inferior because they lack performance tasks.

“In all the states that have pulled out of the consortia, I don’t know of any state that will have performance-based tasks, which I think is a shame,” said Briggs.

Performance tasks add as much as 390 minutes of testing for PARCC students and 270 minutes for Smarter Balanced test-takers.

Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and an advisor to PARCC, said performance tasks aren’t without their drawbacks, but he doesn’t see how it’s possible to assess the Common Core without these kinds of open-ended questions.

“They [performance tasks] take longer and we get less test information per unit time spent, but there is just no way to not have them,” said Marion. “You have to see the evidence that students can do the things you care about. You can fake it on multiple-choice questions; it’s a little harder to fake it with performance assessments.”

Justin McGehee, an English teacher at Cesar Chavez High School in Stockton, California, agrees, but said that whether the sections can be effectively scored will determine their success.

“It’s asking students to think evaluatively and analytically about the texts they are given,” said McGehee. “I would compare it to the AP writing test but done in a way that makes it more accessible to the average student. But with all of that writing, the scoring is very wide open; whether we are going to get useful information about students is going to depend on how effectively the scoring is done.”

Brittany Vetter, a sixth-grade English teacher at Excel Academy in Chelsea, Massachusetts, said similar things about the PARCC performance-based assessments.

“The emphasis on students finding textual evidence to support everything takes questions to a higher level,” said Vetter. “And having students write about multiple texts has upped my class; I think a lot about their ability to synthesize information from multiple sources and then develop a strong piece of writing.”

As for Smarter Balanced, McGehee also liked the idea of the classroom activity that precedes the Smarter Balanced performance tasks, but once again worried about it throwing off the scoring.

“I thought it was a good way of making sure you weren’t testing whether students happened to know specific terms or cultural things,” he said.

McGehee, however, is worried that how teachers present the information could affect how well students do on the tests. “Right now, one teacher might quickly rattle off a few key terms, while another teacher might really try to teach their students the information. So it’s very difficult to make sure all students are getting the same experience.”

Related: Are the Common Core tests turning out to be a big success or a resounding failure?

The point of the classroom activities is to eliminate achievement gaps that are caused by differences in background knowledge and experiences — such as the now famous SAT oarsman–regatta analogy question — not by differences in students’ abilities.

“A lot has been made of these performance tasks but they are tremendously difficult to score … and they can take up to four hours.”

Research has shown that reading tests have a tendency to morph into de facto tests of background knowledge, says Robert Pondiscio, Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In the late 1980s, professors Donna Recht of Cardinal Stritch University and Lauren Leslie of Marquette University gave junior high school students a reading passage about baseball and then asked them questions about the passage. The two found that prior knowledge of baseball, not reading ability, was the best predictor of how well students comprehended it.

Andrew Latham — director of Assessment & Standards Development Services at WestEd, a nonprofit that worked with Smarter Balanced and PARCC on the new tests — said the 30-minute activities may not completely eliminate the benefits of prior knowledge and experience, since the better the discussion goes, the better students will perform.

And not everyone is convinced that the performance tasks questions themselves are an improvement.

Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, thinks we need to wait and see if performance tasks really do represent an improvement over old tests.

“The folks weighing in on this are the people that helped build them,” said Hess. “The real question is going to be when regular people get a chance to look at these items, if they say that looks like something I want my kids to be able to do.”

Latham acknowledges that performance tasks aren’t a panacea.

“A lot has been made of these performance tasks but they are tremendously difficult to score, you get better statistics without open-ended questions so there are always trade-offs,” Latham said. “And they can take up to four hours — that’s a lot of testing time — so it will be about finding the right balance while doing as much as possible.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

* Barry Covington’s quote has been updated to reflect the fact that students taking Smarter Balanced performance tasks have to write one essay, not three.

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