The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is the focus of much controversy to date about the testing’s potential effects on state and local governments, with respect to their budgets, on school districts, with respect to their curricula, and on teachers, with respect to their salaries. We need to “peel” the assessment “onion” to look at its potential effects on the core group — the students, who are most directly affected by any testing program.

That is, we need to look at the test itself and evaluate its effect, on us older, smarter balanced folks.

I just took the grade 7 math “Practice Test” at home, and you can, too. Readers may sign in as a “Guest” to take the test at For “answers,” see the Scoring Guide at

Software? See the CALCULATOR and Notepad buttons. One might expect these to be helpful. However, the online calculator is not the more commonly used scientific/graphing calculator that can display an entire arithmetic expression, and the online Notepad is probably less effective than pencil and paper for a student’s scratch work.

Best practices? It is good practice to provide simple introductory questions that put students at ease and instill some comfort and confidence at the outset, but there are no such start-up questions. And most problems include multiple parts, which will make it difficult to determine sources of student errors, which would help in implementing improvements in teaching.

Multiple correct answers? There is nothing wrong with having more than one correct response – if correct, but non-obvious, responses will be scored correctly. For example, one fill-in-the-blanks problem asks for the ratio of 3 tomatoes to 4 potatoes, but it is not clear whether a correct, available response of 6:8 would be scored as correct. Another example involves writing a fraction, but it is not clear whether a correct, available response of 5/1 would be scored as correct.

Real-life settings? It is unarguably important to test whether students can apply math knowledge to real-life situations. While there are problems that attempt to do this, the settings are often remarkable for how un-real they are. For example, consider a problem about painting a pentagonal wall with cans of paint that can each cover an area of only 24 square feet or ones that require calculation of six total purchase prices, such as 6 pens and 6 erasers, to determine whether a customer has enough money, but for which real-life estimation is not sufficient.

Content level? Almost a quarter of the problems test algebraic skills/concepts. It is difficult to understand how pushing so much algebra down to 7th grade, or earlier, is appropriate for the majority of 7th graders, who have not traditionally been considered ready for the abstractions of algebraic reasoning. For example, there is a problem that requires students to solve an equation for one variable, w, in terms of another, v, using the distributive property at least six times and the additive inverse property at least twice.

As a high-school teacher, I observed that the students who performed better in algebra were those with strong arithmetic backgrounds. And, as a college instructor, I made the same observation about students in calculus with strong algebra backgrounds. Going faster through the math curriculum is not the route to higher-level math success for most students.

Diversity of approaches? While students should be exposed to different approaches to problems, and original approaches should be applauded, students should not have to guess what method the SBAC folks expect as a correct answer.  The Board Chair of the State Department of Education testified to state legislators, on March 12, 2014, that the aim of adopting the Common Core is a “focus on fewer topics handled in more depth.” My impression is that “more depth” means that scores will depend upon students figuring out what the testers want in the way of multiple solution methods, rather than upon students getting correct solutions from any one of a variety of correct methods. Students with unique, correct reasoning patterns may suffer, as may students who find exposure to different methods confusing.

Painting a wall? Try this problem:

Margaret Cibes is a retired math and statistics teacher. She’s a contributor to the Media Clips department of the Mathematics Teacher journal and the Chance News wiki.