Common Core: Mixed review of new computerized tests for students


MONTPELIER -- For some, the prospect of the adoption of yet another new standardized test for Vermont students seems like just one more hoop schools need to jump through to satisfy the federal government.

First there were the NSREs, then the NECAPs, the NEAP and now the SBAC. (Translation: New Standards Reference Exam, the New England Common Assessment Program, the National Educational Assessment Program and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.)

But Michael Hock, the director of education assessment for the Vermont Agency of Education, says the Smarter Balanced test is different. For one thing, it will be administered via computer and will allow schools to get results quickly and compare test scores across state borders.

Most importantly, he says, it will be a more effective gauge of students' comprehension and understanding of subject areas.

Starting in March, every Vermont school will have a three-month period in which to administer the tests. For Hock, the spring of 2015 doesn't feel that far away. He's busy -- working to help the national efforts to determine the passing score for each grade level, as well as teaching workshops in Vermont, and most of all, building awareness about the tests across the state.

"It's all leading up to the big day," he said, when schools launch the new testing program.

Adaptive testing

The SBAC, which will replace the NECAPs this year, will be administered on a computer. The test is adaptive, meaning that a student's performance on a question determines what question appears next. The test questions increase or decrease in difficulty, automatically adjusting to a student's learning threshold.

Hock says that in the world of standardized testing, that's a breakthrough.

He tells the story of a plane ride to California which he spent watching a boy seated next to him play Angry Birds.

"I watched him calculate rate and motion and force and angle as he threw the chicken," Hock said. "And I thought, ‘wouldn't it be great to make a test like that.' Now we can let kids answer questions in a way that you couldn't do with a pen and paper."

The adaptive aspect of the computerized SBAC, he said, prevents cheating, increases engagement and keeps students from getting discouraged when question after question is too difficult. The SBACs also have a hands-on component, where kids work in groups to solve a word problem, for instance, and then go back to their own computers to answer questions about the process.

The tests, like the Common Core Standards, cover math and English. Students in grades 3 through 8 and a high school (11th in Vermont) will be tested. The exams take eight hours to complete, a length on par with the NECAP test.

In 2010, when the Vermont Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, the state chose to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), one of two approved national tests. The second is the Partnership for Assistance of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Vermont is one of 43 states to have adopted the Common Core and an associated test.

In the spring of 2013, the state completed pilot testing in 10 schools across the state to assess the functionality of the test for students with learning disabilities. The test has special accessibility tools that make it easier for students with special needs to participate in testing.

This year, 27 Vermont schools and 6,000 students took the SBAC as part of a field test. Nationwide, 250,000 schools participated in the pilot project.

Hock, a former special education teacher, said the accessibility tools in particular, as well as a hands-on, group-based section, are landmarks for testing.

"I'm really excited; this feels like the culmination of many years of work for me," he said. "Building tests from the ground up to take into account our many different students and their different abilities."

California allows people to take a practice test as a guest, though it doesn't feature the adaptive component.

Pat Fitzsimmons, Research, Standards, and Assessment assistant director of the AOE, emphasized that like the Common Core, the SBAC focuses on problem solving and skills rather than rote memorization. Indeed, there are technological improvements -- highlighting text, drawing graphs, defining vocabulary in the question. Mostly, however, it seemed a lot like any other standardized test; in the English Language Arts section, there are passages to read and compare, find the main idea, and write a brief response. The 12th grade math test included some algebra, standard deviations, functions and graphing, and a word problem or two.

The Common Core State Standards have been quietly adopted in Vermont, but in other states, the federal plan has raised an uproar. Three states that had initially adopted the standards abandoned the program after a Republican-led backlash argued that the standards are too expensive for schools and represent a prescriptive federal overreach.

In many states, the Common Core has been inextricably linked to Pearsons, a multi-national education company, that has made millions ($33 million in New York alone) in contracts with states for textbooks and curricula.

Other companies have also rushed in to help the states obtain materials that use Common Core standards.

Vermont is not using Pearson. The state doesn't mandate textbooks or materials, and each school chooses its own curriculum.

Vermont critics of SBAC say the tests could be used to punish schools, much in the way No Child Left Behind has led to public teacher bashing and labeling of poor performance schools.

Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont National Educator's Association (NEA), said the teacher's union is most concerned about the implications of the adoption of a new test.

"The official position of the union here is that we support the concept of a national set of standards," Allen said. "What we don't support is a rush into a testing regimen that would be used to punish teachers, students, and school systems. We don't want a repeat of the No Child Left Behind."

No Child Left Behind set what many educators see as impossible standards for schools. Ninety-seven percent of Vermont's schools, for example, failed annual yearly progress standards last year because students didn't meet federal standards for learning proficiency as measured through the NECAPs.

Allen says tests are an important part of evaluating students, but "it seems that there are new testing regimens that are coming down the pipe with alarming regularity."

Bill Mathis serves on the Vermont Board of Education, and is managing director of the National Education Policy Center. He testified against the standards to the board (before he became a member) in 2009 and is deeply skeptical of the tests.

"It doesn't give you information that you don't already know," he said.

Mathis said Vermont's "hands are tied" when it comes to the federal dollars the state receives for education, making it impossible for the state to objectively gauge the quality of the tests.

"Right now, we can't step away from the money," he said. "The only thing we can do is give the testing the dignity it deserves -- which is not a great deal."

Rebecca Holcombe, the secretary of the Agency of Education, says the tests will be more difficult and schools should expect to see their scores drop in the first few years of the implementation of Common Core.

"My fear is that people will see low scores and say that it's a failing school," she said. "We're the same school we were the day before the test, and to say otherwise, does an injustice to our kids and to our teachers. Until we look at how our kids are developing, not just in one year, but in several, I don't think it's fair to make that kind of inference."

Holcombe compared the tests to checking oil in a car.

"The oil may be fine, but that doesn't mean that the car is fine -- the tire might be flat," she said. "In the same way, tests tell us one important piece of information, but they don't tell us everything about whether a school is doing well."

The tests, said Julie Longchamp, director of Professional Programs with the Vermont NEA, will allow for a real comparison across states and on a national level. That's valuable, she said, for making improvements, sharing materials, and learning what works and what doesn't.

It may take a few years for the tests to accurately reflect what students know, but when that happens, teachers will gain valuable information to improve their teaching.


Although a paper version of the SBAC will be available for the first two years, Hock said he's hopeful that every student will be able to take the tests on a computer. Only a few small schools don't yet have the technology in place.

For at least a few Vermont schools, the costs of updating technology has been high. Orange Southwest Supervisory Union, which includes Randolph Union High School, spent $320,000 on a fiber optic Internet cable, according to Superintendent Brent Kay.

Hock said because the tests can be taken by small groups of students over a three-month period, he said, the strain on the system isn't as high as some critics claim.

"Our contention is that if (schools) didn't have the computer infrastructure to deliver the test, they needed it anyway," Hock said.

In interviews with educators, administrators, government officials and citizens, criticisms of the tests surface again and again: The tests take too much time, they're not providing useful information, there's no evidence to show SBACs are any better than any enumeration that's come before.

Those concerns may be justified, Holcombe said.

"We don't know whether those are the skills that will make you successful or even whether it's the information that you need to know," she said. "We're in new ground, new territory."


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