Growing up in the Midwest, I took some form of state assessment every year from third through eighth grade and another set of tests throughout high school. My peers and I knew how we ranked against each other in almost every subject—but only within the state of Kansas. Our assessments were different from those given in any other state, making it difficult to know how we compared to students our age across the country. However, as states implement the Common Core State Standards(CCSS), assessments have been developed to measure not only students’ knowledge, but also their growth throughout their academic careers and their ability to perform tasks at the level of competency described in the CCSS.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is one of the two main consortia involved in developing assessment programs to coordinate with the CCSS. This assessment program consists of fixed-form assessments administered in grades 3–11, with required summative assessments as well as optional midyear and diagnostic tests.

Conversely, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) has created a program of summative assessments [PDF link] to be administered in grades 3–8 and 11. The SBAC assessments are computer-adaptive, meaning that a test adjusts its difficulty according to a student’s prior answers, and, as with the PARCC assessments, there are optional diagnostic and interim tests.

Both assessment programs will examine students’ English and math skills in comparison with the expected proficiency of a student in a given grade level. The hope is that by assessing students yearly (or almost yearly, in the case of the SBAC), teachers, parents and the students themselves will be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. As students move to higher levels, the assessments also allow for the correction of any academic weaknesses before they affect students’ progress. The CCSS define where students should be academically in each year, and the PARCC and SBAC assessments are methods of monitoring students’ progress toward those goals so as to better predict students’ potential for success in college or in future careers.

One of the more readily apparent differences between the PARCC and the SBAC assessments is that the PARCC battery is composed of fixed-form tests, while SBAC assessments are computer-adaptive tests (CATs). This means that all students within a particular grade level taking the PARCC assessments are tested at a constant skill level, while students taking the SBAC will receive questions tailored to the skill they exhibit in answering earlier questions.

I believe there are advantages and disadvantages to both strategies—I’ve taken both styles of assessment before. Fixed-form tests are universal: each student within a group takes exactly the same test and is measured against exactly the same answer key. They allow teachers to see whether a student understands a concept or not. On the other hand, CATs can better measure a student’s ability against their prior performance as well as their ability to apply concepts to unfamiliar situations. As a student, I liked computer-adaptive testing better; I tended to finish more quickly and I found the tests more interesting. As a teacher, I might prefer fixed-form as a simpler comparison across the class (or grade, or states).

While my personal preferences for assessments are somewhat overdue now, I look forward to the future of academic assessments. It seems that even between these two consortia, there are plenty of options to go around, and I hope that these assessments will allow teachers to better prepare their students for success in whatever future they choose.

Did You Know?

There are two consortia, the Dynamic Learning Maps Alternate Assessment System Consortium (DLM) and the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC), that are developing alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities. These assessments are designed to allow for alternate learning methods while assessing the preparedness of students for post-secondary options.

Two assessment systems are also being designed to determine the proficiency in English of students who haven’t been taught English as their first language: Assessment Services Supporting ELs through Technology Systems (ASSETS) and the English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century Consortium (ELPA21) are developing assessment systems designed to measure students’ English proficiency in order to better predict their success in post-secondary education or careers.

Further Reading

Center for K–12 Assessment & Performance Management at ETS, Coming Together to Raise Achievement: New assessments for the Common Core State Standards (Updated March 2014), accessed June 19, 2014,