5th Grade Class Revealed Poor Design of Smarter Balanced Tests—But No One Listened

Posted by: on Mar 17, 2015 | No Comments

Earlier this month, soon after I released my critique of the Smarter Balanced tests for mathematics, I received the following not from a fifth grade teacher in Michigan.


After reading your piece covering the flaws you found on the Smarter Balanced assessment, I had to reach out and thank you. I teach fifth grade. I put my students on the math test, made a video and sent it to Smarter Balanced. My students are on computers almost every day–they are tech savvy. The video is worth a watch:

The email exchange with Smarter Balanced is below. An interesting read. I recently put my kids on the fifth grade ELA practice test and was astounded at the questions my 10 year old students were asked. Questions where each possible answer was so ambiguous it was impossible to answer with any amount of certainty. As a matter of fact, a few of us teachers put the questions on social media and gave adults a shot at these fifth grade ELA questions. No one could come to a consensus. When I retrieved the answer key, we found most of us were incorrect. I forwarded my concerns to the Michigan Department of Education and they wrote me back, this week, informing me they would remove them from Michigan’s sample items (Michigan is purchasing Smarter Balanced questions to populate their state test).

Needless to say, I’m in the trenches with these assessments and I applaud your work in this area. I actually enjoy the study of assessment and data–I’m not a Common Core naysayer nor am I ‘anti-assessment’–quite the opposite. This assessment is simply unfair.

—Elizabeth L. Willoughby, 5th Grade Teacher, Clinton Township, Michigan

The exchange with Smarter Balanced chronicled Ms. Willoughby’s attempts to bring the problems with the user interface to the attention of the consortium and their response. Of particular note was the following email from March 2014:

From: Smarter Balanced Help Desk
Sent: Monday, March 03, 2014 4:40 PM
To: Elizabeth Willoughby
Subject: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

Dear Ms. Willoughby:

Thank you for bringing to our attention the challenges you and your students experienced with the Grade 5 math Practice Test. As I’m sure you know, test development is an iterative process, with improvement coming through rounds of review and editing. It is just this sort of feedback from teachers that is helping us to continue to improve the assessment in advance of its operational launch next year. We are now in the process of updating the practice test, which was released last May, to reflect our latest work in test development. So your feedback is extremely timely.

One of the elements we have continued to work to improve is the student interface. We think your students will have fewer challenges when they take the upcoming Field Test because of those improvements. However, a primary purpose of the Field Test is to identify those questions that are not working as they should so that they can be fixed or eliminated. We will be on the lookout for items in which the test interface is confusing for students.

Please continue to provide us with your feedback. The goal of all the states in the Consortium is to produce assessments that are valid, reliable and fair and that provide valuable information to educators. Hearing from dedicated teachers like you will help us meet that goal.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

Had anything significant changed in the Smarter Balanced interface between March 2014 and March 2015, I would not have produced my critique. And more importantly, Ms. Willoughby’s class and the millions of students taking the Smarter Balanced tests this spring might have had a better testing experience.


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