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Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

11 August 2018

Quality Assessment Part 2: Standards and Content Specifications

This is part 2 of a 10-part series on building high-quality assessments.

Mountain with Flag on Summit

Some years ago my sister was in middle school and I had just finished my freshman year at college. My sister's English teacher kept assigning word search puzzles and she hated them. The family had just purchased an Apple II clone and so I wrote a program to solve word searches for my sister. I'm not sure what skills her teacher was trying to develop with the puzzles; but I developed programming skills and my sister learned to operate a computer. Both skill sets have served us later in life.

Alignment to Standards

The first step in building any assessment, from a quiz to a major exam, should be to determine what you are trying to measure. In the case of academic assessments, we measure skills, also known as competencies. State standards are descriptions of specific competencies that a student should have achieved by the end of the year. They are organized by subject and grade. State summative tests indicate student achievement by measuring how close each student is to the state standards — typically at the close of the school year. Interim tests can be used during the school year to measure progress and to offer more detailed focus on specific skill areas.

At the higher education level, Colleges and Universities set Learning Objectives for each course. A common practice is to use the term, "competencies" as a generic reference to both state standards and college learning objectives and I'll follow that pattern here.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, where I have been working, measures student performance relative to the Common Core State Standards. Choosing standards that have been adopted by multiple states enables us to write one assessment that meets the needs of all our member states and territories.

The Content Specification

The content specification is a restatement of competencies organized in a way that facilitates assessment. Related skills are clustered together so that performance measures on related tasks may be aggregated. For example, Smarter Balanced collects skill measures associated with "Reading Literary Texts" and "Reading Informational Texts" together into a general evaluation of "Reading". In contrast, a curriculum might cluster "Reading Literary Texts" with "Creative Writing" because synergies occur when you teach those skills together.

The Smarter Balanced content specification follows a hierarchy of Subject, Grade, Claim, and Target. In Mathematics, the four claims are:

  1. Concepts and Procedures
  2. Problem Solving
  3. Communicating Reasoning
  4. Modeling and Data Analysis

In English Language Arts, the four claims are:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Speaking & Listening
  4. Research & Inquiry

These same four claims are repeated in each grade but the expected skill level increases. That increase in skill is represented by the targets assigned to the claims at each grade level. In English Reading (Claim 1), the complexity of the text presented to the student increases and the information the student is expected to draw from the text is increasingly demanding. Likewise, in Math Claim 1 (Concepts and Procedures) the targets progress from simple arithmetic in lower grades to Geometry and Trigonometry in High School.

Data Form

Typical practice is for states to publish their standards as documents. When published online they have been published as PDF files. Such documents are human readable but they lack the structure needed for data systems to facilitate access. In many cases they also lack identifiers that are required when referencing standards or content specifications.

Most departments within colleges and universities will develop a set of learning objectives for each course. Often times a state college system will develop statewide objectives. While these objectives are used internally for course design, there's little consistency in publishing the objectives. Some institutions publish all of their objectives while others keep them as internal documents. The Temple University College of Liberal Arts offers an example of publicly published learning objectives in HTML form.

In August 2017, IMS Global published the Competencies & Academic Standards Exchange (CASE) data standard. It is a vendor-independent format for publishing achievement standards suitable for course learning objectives, state standards, content specifications, and many other competency frameworks.

Public Consulting Group, in partnership with a several organizations built OpenSALT, an open source "Standards Alignment Tool" as a reference implementation of CASE.

Here's an example. Smarter Balanced originally published its content specifications in PDF form. The latest versions, from July of 2017, are available on the Development and Design page of their website. These documents have complete information but they do not offer any computer-readable structure.

"Boring" PDF form of Smarter Balanced Content Specifications:

In Spring 2018, Smarter Balanced published the same specifications, in CASE format, using the OpenSALT tool. The structure of the format lets you navigate the hierarchy of the specifications. The CASE format also supports cross-references between publications. In this case, Smarter Balanced also published a rendering of the Common Core State Standards in CASE format to facilitate references from the content specifications to the corresponding Common Core standards.

"Cool" CASE form of Smarter Balanced Content Specifications and CCSS:

I hope you agree that the Standards and Content Specifications are significantly easier to navigate in their structured form. Smarter Balanced is presently working on a "Content Specification Explorer" which will offer a friendlier user interface on the structured CASE data.


Regardless of how they are published, use of standards is greatly facilitated if an identifier is assigned to each competency. There are two general categories of identifiers: Opaque identifiers carry no meaning - they are just a number. Often they are "Univerally Unique IDs" (UUIDs) which are generated using an algorithm to assure that identifier is not used anywhere else in the world. Any meaning of the identifier is by virtue of the record to which it is assigned. "Human Readable" identifiers are constructed to have a meaningful structure to a human reader. There are good justifications each approach.

The Common Core State Standards assigned both types of identifier to each standard. Smarter Balanced has followed a similar practice in the identifiers for our Content Specification.

Common Core State Standards Example:

  • Opaque Identifier: DB7A9168437744809096645140085C00
  • Human Readable Identifier: CCSS.Math.Content.5.OA.A.1
  • URL: http://corestandards.org/Math/Content/5/OA/A/1/
  • Statement: Use parentheses, brackets, or braces in numerical expressions, and evaluate expressions with these symbols.

Smarter Balanced Content Specification Target Example:

You'll notice that the Smarter Balanced Content Specification target is a copy of the corresponding Common Core State Standard. The CASE representation includes an "Exact Match Of" cross-reference from the content specification to the corresponding standard to show that's the case.

Smarter Balanced has published a specification for its human-readable Content Specification Identifiers. Here's the interpretation of "M.G5.C1OA.TA.5.OA.A.1":

  • M Math
  • G5 Grade 5
  • C1 Claim 1
  • OA Domain OA (Operations & Algebraic Thinking)
  • TA Target A
  • 5.OA.A.1 CCSS Standard 5.OA.A.1

Quality Factors

The design of any educational activity should begin with a set of learning objectives. State Standards offer a template for curricula, lesson plans, assessments, supplemental materials, games and more. At the higher education level, Colleges and Universities set learning objectives for each course that serve a similar purpose. The quality of the achievement standards will have a fundamental impact on the quality of the related learning activities.

Factors to consider when selecting or building standards or learning objectives include the following:

  • Are the competencies relevant to the discipline being taught?
  • Are the competencies parallel in construction, describing skills at a similar grain size?
  • Are the skills ordered in a natural learning progression?
  • Are related skills, such as reading and writing, taught together in a coordinated fashion?
  • Is the amount of material covered by the competencies appropriate for the amount of time that will be allocated for learning?

The Development Process and the Standards-Setting Criteria used by the authors of the Common Core State Standards offer some insight into how they sought to develop high quality standards.

Factors to consider when developing an assessment content specification include the following:

  • Does the specification reference an existing standard or competency set?
  • Are the competencies described in such a way that they can be measured?
  • Is the grain size (the amount of knowledge involved) for each competency optimal for construction of test questions?
  • Are the competencies organized so that related skills are clustered together?
  • Does the content standard factor in dependencies between competencies? For example, performing long division is evidence that an individual is also competent at multiplication.
  • Is the organization of the competencies, typically into a hierarchy, consistent and easy to navigate?
  • Does the competency set lend itself to reporting skills at multiple levels? For example, Smarter Balanced reports an overall ELA score and then subscores for each claim: Reading, Writing, Speaking & Listening, and Research & Inquiry.


Compared with curricula, standards and content specifications are relatively short documents. The Common Core State Standards total 160 pages, much less than the textbook for a single grade. But standards have a disproportionate impact on all learning activities within the state, college, or class where they are used. Careful attention to the selection or construction of standards is a high-impact effort.

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