Nevada County schools begin new era of online testing
Standardized testing has kicked off in California public schools — but this year, students will swap their No. 2 pencils for keyboards, as schools usher in new computer-based testing directly aligned to Common Core standards.
The test, known as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, was developed by a multi-state group of educators, researchers and policy makers. It will be given to students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 in both English language arts and math.
The assessments are designed to better reflect what students are learning in the classroom under Common Core by favoring critical thinking over memorization.
“The old test clearly measured, here are the facts you learned and can you spit those facts back out,” said Karen Montero, the principal of Cottage Hill Elementary School, who is coordinating testing for the Pleasant Ridge Union School District. “This is not just about the information that you learned, but your ability to work with that information.”
On the new test, students may be asked to answer questions about a passage of text, supporting those answers by citing lines from the passage. Or they might be required to find the width of a particular rectangle and explain how they derived the answer.
They’ll also be asked to do a performance task as part of both subject tests — a set of questions and activities that ask the students to apply their knowledge to a problem.
For instance, a student might read an article, watch a video and analyze research before writing an essay on a particular topic.
And, for the first time, much of the test will adapt to the test-taker. Except during the performance tasks, the computer will adjust the difficulty of the questions a student receives during the test; a student who answers a question correctly will receive a more difficult follow-up question than a student who misses that same question.
After years of fill-in-the-bubble pencil-and-paper STAR assessments, the new tests are a welcome change, said John Baggett, principal at Margaret G. Scotten Elementary School. Baggett is coordinating the implementation of testing for the Grass Valley Unified School District.
“There’s really problem-solving involved in it, which is great for career and college in the future,” Baggett said. “Problem-solving is what the employers of the future were saying, ‘I want my employees to have.’”
The shift to the computer-based tests has required a fair amount of preparation from school districts. Grade schools can begin testing after two-thirds of the school year has passed — typically this month — and high schools can begin testing after 80 percent of their instructional days have passed. The tests must be completed by end of school year.
Suzi Rosas, the coordinator of testing and accountability for the Nevada Joint Union High School District, said the district has assigned testing coordinators at each school site who have been training teachers on the logistics of administering the test. The district updated its Internet network last year in advance of the test, and has made it a priority to get students into computer labs to introduce them to the test format well in advance of the testing period.
“We want them familiar with how it feels to take a test on the computer, so the anxiety is less going into that situation,” said Rosas.
For a digitally savvy generation, the transition to computer-based testing is more about getting them used to the format and available tools — such as highlighting and enlarging text as well as flagging questions they want to revisit — than getting them comfortable on a computer.
Montero said students at Cottage Hill have been spending time in the computer lab, learning how to log in to the test and use those tools, and are adjusting with few problems.
“The kids that we have in school now, they were born into a time when everything is on the computer,” Montero said. “It’s not anything that is scary or different for them.”
One aspect of the test that is slightly scary for educators is the anticipated results. Last spring, schools throughout California took an unscored practice run of the test to identify any potential kinks in the test-taking process; however, this will be the first year that tests are scored and those scores are released to the public.
Baggett said most schools across the state are expecting students to show low proficiency based largely on the fact that the Common Core standards are still in the early stages of implementation in the classroom and the test format is so new.
“One of biggest fears is what are the scores going to look like, and how is the public going to scrutinize them?” Baggett said.
He cautioned parents and others against comparing scores from this year’s test to scores from previous years.
“You’re looking at apples and oranges,” Baggett said.
The state agrees. On Wednesday, the state board of education voted unanimously to suspend its Academic Performance Index, a score based on standardized testing results that the state uses to rank schools from low to high performing, for the 2014-2015 school year.
The move is meant to give teachers and students additional time to get used to the new educational standards and testing, while also giving the state time to develop a revamped accountability system that will include other factors along with standardized test results.
Though the state won’t be assessing schools based on scores, educators say they will use this year’s results as a baseline to measure strengths and weaknesses of Common Core implementation, and track progress in following years.
“We will use this data to go forward and make changes in our instructional program based on the scores that we get this year,” Montero said.
And those changes will be easier to make because schools will receive the results of the tests within a few weeks of completing the assessments; under the previous test format, results wouldn’t arrive at schools until August or September of the following school year.
That gives schools a distinct advantage, Montero said, by allowing them to better understand and identify where students might need extra support and make plans to strengthen instruction in those areas before the school year begins. “It helps us look at our program and say, here’s an area we want to focus.”
Baggett said the new assessments will have merit as one of several components teachers can use to help create a more individualized and meaningful experience in the classroom.
“I think in the long run, there’s value in, wow, I can know where my kids need help and I can give them that extra help by having a small group over here work on that need, rather than wholesale teaching my class the same thing,” Baggett said. “Teaching is not one size fits all anymore.”
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4230.
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