A day after the public got a look at results from the standardized tests Maine has used since 2009, thousands of teachers and students were introduced to the replacement for those tests.
Between now and June, about 180 schools will pilot tests from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which next year will take the place of the mathematics and English language arts tests Maine uses: the New England Common Assessment Program tests for elementary and middle schools and the SAT for high schools.
The content, technical requirements and scheduling of the tests all will be different from those of the NECAP and the SAT, which is why school officials volunteered for the pilot testing.
“We want to be prepared for what’s going to happen next year, when it really counts,” said Matt Shea, coordinator of student achievement in Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2. “Not only on our end for how the administration of it works — our kids can see a sneak preview of what questions are going to look like.”
Shea signed up all 10 of the RSU’s schools to take part, but Dresden Elementary was left out when the testing consortium chose among volunteers to create a sample population representative of the state demographically.
In the RSU 2 schools in Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond, about 900 students in grades three through eight and 11 took tests in English language arts starting Tuesday, 45 minutes per day. This week, they’ll take mathematics tests.
According to the Smarter Balanced consortium, more than 3 million students in 22 states will take part in field testing. The testing window was supposed to start March 18, but the consortium delayed it a week to iron out any problems.
That wasn’t a problem for RSU 2, which had scheduled testing to begin the following week anyway.
For North Anson-based School Administrative District 74, however, it was just the latest case of technical difficulty or uncertainty as Solon Elementary and Garret Schenck Elementary prepared for the tests, Superintendent Ken Coville said. School officials decided not to participate.
“We had lost confidence that the benefits of participating in the field testing would outweigh the potential disruptiveness and uncertainty involved,” Coville said.
PUSH FOR DEEPER THINKING
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is one of two multi-state groups developing tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, a set of statements about the knowledge and skills that students are supposed to have at the end of each grade in mathematics and English language arts. The standards were adopted by the District of Columbia and 45 states, including Maine.
Maine is changing tests because the NECAP and the SAT aren’t designed to measure how well students’ learning matches up to the Common Core. Maine students will continue to take the science portions of the Maine Education Assessment and Maine High School Assessment for at least one more year, said Rachelle Tome, chief academic officer at the Department of Education.
Schools will be able to see their results from the Smarter Balanced pilot tests this spring, but the results won’t count for any official purpose, such as Maine’s school accountability system or the Department of Education’s letter grades for schools.
The Common Core standards are supposed to help students think more deeply and analytically than the Maine Learning Results they replaced. The tests differ accordingly.
A NECAP mathematics task, Tome said, might ask a student to solve an equation and then fill in a bubble next to the correct answer. A Smarter Balanced task might add further questions asking students to explain the reasoning behind their solution or apply the information to another problem.
The new tests also differ in medium and format. Students take them online, and the tests adapt to how well individual students perform. If a student gets something right, the next item might be more challenging; if the student gets it wrong, and it will get easier in some way to pinpoint the student’s level.
“When we get results, it will provide a much clearer idea of where students are performing,” Tome said.
Many Maine schools already give computer-adaptive tests for internal use, such as the ones from the Northwest Evaluation Association, so Tome said some of the biggest changes for school staffs will be in the administration of the Smarter Balanced Tests.
For the NECAP, every student in each grade in a school must sit down for the test at the same time. For the state’s use of the SAT, nearly all high school juniors take it on the same Saturday morning.
For the Smarter Balanced tests, schools will be able to schedule testing within a window next spring that could be as long as 12 weeks, Tome said. The adaptive nature of the tests and the large number of possible items and tasks mean that there are fewer security issues involved with students taking the tests at a different time or even pausing a test temporarily.
The Smarter Balanced tests aren’t timed. The consortium estimates that the total time necessary will be seven hours for students in grades three through five, seven-and-a-half hours for grades six through eight and eight-and-a-half hours for 11th grade.
LAPTOPS OFFER AN EDGE
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium traces its roots to late 2009, but Maine schools’ transition to the tests could be eased by older, homegrown initiatives: the Maine School and Library Network, which formed in 1996; and the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which has been providing laptops to middle school students since 2002.
One thing that piloting schools across the country are trying to determine is whether they have enough computers for all test-takers and the Internet bandwidth to handle the simultaneous online activity.
“In general, we’re pretty confident that our schools will be able to figure this out,” said Jeff Mao, the state’s learning technology director.
The Maine School and Library Network coordinates broadband Internet access for Maine schools, seeking bids from providers that will agree to provide service to all schools — from Portland to rural northern Maine — at the same rate, then covers the costs through federal and state funds. The group also monitors usage at schools to determine who needs an upgrade in circuit speed the following year.
“It’s entirely possible that one of the field-test schools will find that their bandwidth doesn’t hold up, but the same school may be on the list for an upgrade,” Mao said.
Mao said networks that can handle everyday learning activities should be able to support testing.
The Maine Learning Technology Initiative provides a laptop or tablet for every seventh- and eighth-grader at no cost to local schools, plus computers for high school students at a reduced cost.
When writing up the last request for proposals, Mao said, the Department of Education incorporated the Smarter Balanced technical requirements into the bidding process to make sure any device going to students would work for the tests.
The initiative shipped 80,000 new devices to schools last year and sold 70,000 laptops from the previous round, most of them to school districts. The older laptops also met the Smarter Balanced requirements, so schools can provide those to students who are not in the grades served by the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Mao said the volume of computers is not a primary concern.
There could be other technical considerations for schools. Alternative Organizational Structure 97 Superintendent Gary Rosenthal said one of the things school officials hope to learn when students at Fayette Central School and Winthrop Grade School take tests next month is whether the younger students have the motor skills to complete click-and-drag tasks on a laptop trackpad. If not, they may need to buy computer mice.
GLITCHES ADDRESSED QUICKLY
Tome said the Department of Education probably will survey schools that are taking part in field testing to see what worked well, what problems there were and what was unexpected.
The department would use the responses to inform training of staff from schools that are not involved in the field tests. Tome said they hope to schedule those sessions in the fall.
Coville, superintendent of the North Anson-based district, which opted out this year, said it would be important to his district for students and teachers to have experience with the tests’ format and administration before the ones that count next spring.
“If those are available as we have been assured they will be, then we feel that that will be a better way of providing our students and staff with an opportunity than participating in the field testing at this time,” he said. “We’re concerned that glitches that may occur in the field testing may cause students and staff to develop anxiety and unwarranted concerns about the ultimate tests.”
On Thursday afternoon, after three days of testing, Shea said it was smooth going in RSU 2 schools. The problems that a handful of students had in gaining access to the testing site on Tuesday disappeared once they switched to spare computers.
Teachers reported that the interface was easy for them to use, and students said the types of questions and tasks on the tests were similar to things they’d encountered in class. Shea said he was happy to hear that because it means that the district’s staff has aligned instruction to the standards and correctly calibrated the rigor of classroom work.
It only got easier as the week went on, Shea said.
“Tomorrow when they log back in, they pick up right where they left off,” he said. “They should be experts by the end of the week.”