Students from nine San Ramon Valley Unified schools are piloting a new, computer-based standardized test designed to assess students at higher levels of cognition. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) will test new Common Core standards, which will be implemented nationwide next school year.
Common Core State Standards aim to make the U.S. more competitive with other countries and level the playing field, so that all students will be equally educated and college ready when they graduate high school. The test is meant to be a "staircase to readiness," meaning the creators looked at what incoming college students would need to know when they graduated, then looked at what they'd need to know in eleventh grade to get them ready for twelfth and so on, down to the kindergarten level.
"If our students are taking only the federally required assessments -- English language arts and math, eighth grade science and tenth grade life science -- we do not know how the academic performance index will be calculated," said Toni Taylor, director of educational services for SRVUSD . "However, it only stands to reason that the longer students are exposed to the strategies embedded in the CCSS, the better prepared they will be for the types of performance tasks they will complete on the SBAC assessments."
The SBAC assessments are very different from STAR tests, which is required for students in grades 2 through 11. While STAR is primarily a multiple choice test that assesses students at low cognitive levels for recall, reproduction of knowledge or facts, use of simple procedures and formulas, SBAC will assess students at much higher levels of cognition. Students will be expected to use higher order thinking skills to evaluate, synthesize, analyze, explain, generalize and create.
All SRVUSD schools are signed up to pilot the SBAC test in 2013-14 alongside the current STAR assessment. STAR will be phased out the following school year with all schools participating in scored SBAC assessments. SBAC hopes to test 10 percent of California schools ahead of the official launch in 2014-15; assessors will use data and feedback from the pilot schools to identify any problems or concerns and then to correct any issues prior to the 2014-2015 launch of the actual assessments.
"I think it's an excellent opportunity for teachers, principals and staff to really sit with the students and see how this is going," said SRVUSD Assessment Coordinator Marianne Splenda. "The whole philosophy is much better psychometrically for parents and students."
Windemere Ranch Middle School and eight elementaries (Bollinger Canyon, Country Club, Golden View, Montair, Montevideo, Sycamore Valley, Tassajara Hills and Vista Grande) participated or will participate in the pilot over a 12-week period though the middle of May. Each school tested a particular grade level with different tasks or set of tasks -- students answered computer items only in multiple choice or short responses, took computer tests plus a "performance task" where students answered questions about a long passage ,or a combination of the two with an added classroom activity.
There has been concern nationally about the implementation of the Common Core tests, according to a Washington Post article. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers and a strong supporter of Common Core, said the new approach is being poorly implemented and is concerned that states are rushing out tests based on the new standards without preparing teachers and designing new curricula.
Although San Ramon Valley Unified officials and teachers seem excited about the new standards and assessment, a handful of technical and practical issues must be addressed before full-scale implementation. In addition to prepping educators on administering the test, various school sites grappled with computer lab sufficiency and timing.
"(Students) were all excited to do the test because it was explained to them that we were really lucky to be chosen and their whole process in taking the test would help make it a better test in the future," said Montevideo Elementary Technology Coordinator Leona Van Winkle. "They were really working at their best performance, but it was a long time."
Montevideo had allotted three one-hour sessions each for third grade students to take the math pilot and fourth graders to take English/Language Arts; students averaged three hours to complete the exam but some took four or five hours, Van Winkle noted.
Van Winkle said students may have taken a longer time to complete the pilot because of keyboard demands, which required students to type responses to long prompts. While each school handles keyboarding differently, Montevideo fourth and fifth graders participate in typing courses for five to six weeks for 20 minutes during the beginning of the year. The school will now teach keyboarding to third graders.
Some students who are used to using touch screens had difficulty dragging and scrolling during the exam. Van Winkle said her students had "formatting issues" with not knowing how to delete and choose different answers, while others complained that the test would occasionally freeze.
"Just because of some of the little glitches, and I know they'll work this out, it was a little frustrating for some students," she said.
Tassajara Hills Elementary third grader Nicola Chu, whose class did the math computer portion and a performance task, said she had a hard time scrolling to reference a graph. Although she liked being able to flag answers she was unsure of and go back later, Nicola said she could "see more things on paper than you can on a screen."
"It was easier to change the answer of a question by pressing on the other answer instead of having to erase it on paper," Nicola said. "I like the computer test better than STAR test. (On STAR) you have to color in the bubble exactly, which is harder and takes a longer time."
Nicola said that while she likes the computer, she usually plays games on an iPad and isn't on a desktop much. She said she needs to practice scrolling and typing.
"Everybody's on touch screen so kids aren't as familiar with the qwerty keyboard," said Nicola's mother, Regina Yang. "I'm concerned about the tech part of it, part of it because I do consulting so I'm familiar with how hard it is to roll out new systems. It's a very short time frame, it's really aggressive. The content isn't stable yet, and neither is the technology. I think it's a really interesting idea but it's going to be a rough couple years."
Montevideo is also concerned about the amount of computers available to students during the testing period; the school has a small computer lab with 26 desktops and the adjacent media center has six computers. Van Winkle said she couldn't fit an upper level class in the lab and adjacent computers shuts down the library for the rest of the students.
"It would be advantageous if we had a lab that would handle a full 32 students in a class and not have to split the two into the library/media center. It'll be the timing, trying to get all the students through since we only have the one lab," she said. "We're able to test on iPads, we do have some, but all iPads require a keyboard and we don't have keyboards, so that would be an added cost."
Windemere Ranch Assistant Principal Mimi Quan said her school is "in a good place going forward for testing," with two computer labs and a mobile cart at the time of the pilot. Since then, the school has opened a third computer lab.
"But imagine if you're an older school and you don't have as much access to technology....or if you have older technology. I noticed some of the formatting didn't work ion older computers," Quan said, adding that Windemere will consider SBAC compliance when purchasing technology in the future.
Quan said her students experienced similar issues with formatting and scrolling, as well as interference between the iPad's bluetooth and the school's wifi. Many students wanted to highlight and underline and found it difficult to use a split computer screen.
Windemere students felt that they understood the material being tested and are "digital natives," meaning they're comfortable on the computer. Quan said she looked forward to the real SBAC, which will be more aligned with students' individual performance.
"There's a lot more critical thinking. It's testing kids on how they communicate, which is more of a real life communication. When you go to a job your boss isn't going to ask you multiple choice questions…I think it's more realistic," Quan said. "Overall, I thought it was a really great experience as educators and for our students, seeing what this is going to be. It calmed my fears a bit."
After three full periods of 45 minutes to finish the SBAC, Quan said her biggest take-away was that staff needs to practice classroom management, which differs between a classroom and a computer lab.
"Drawbacks are more just a protocol procedural of how we're going to make this happen and I don't anyone has those answers," she added.
Although technology issues are "not looming large over our heads," Splenda said SBAC compliance is an excellent opportunity for staff and administrators to get together and discuss the need for more equipment such as keyboards and servers. Students also need to practice writing essays on a computer.
Splenda said some students found the SBAC test difficult because they hadn't studied some of the material yet, but noted that SRVUSD is gearing up teachers to teach Common Core standards next year.
The SBAC pilot wasn't able to fulfill a lot of individualized education program (IEP) specifications that educators regularly see in the STAR test, such as a "read aloud" option. Assessors plan to add those enhancements next spring, Splenda said.
"The biggest problem I foresee is AP testing, the collision of accountability systems is where the issue is," Splenda said. "There are some really nice things proposed with the School Board with the formation of the new testing system."
An informational link on the School District's website mentions a proposal from State Superintendent Tom Torlakson to suspend some, not all, of the STAR assessments for 2013-2014 in order to ease the burden of administering two different assessments and to save the state in excess of $15 million.
The district will receive a summary aggregate response from the SBAC at end of May, though the pilot test is not graded.