April 12, 2014 in City

Computer-based SBAC exams introduced in Washington, Idaho schools

By The Spokesman-Review
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Winton Elementary fifth-grader Tianna Wood works on the practice Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test at the Coeur d’Alene school last month as Idaho students got a look at the state assessments intended to align with Common Core standards.
(Full-size photo)

Students at Winton Elementary School in Coeur d’Alene will sit at computers next week and enter a whole new world of testing – one that emphasizes critical thinking, real-world applications and keyboard skills.

The stagnant, multiple-choice tests used for years are out the door. Students now are asked to explain their answers, type essays and show how well they apply knowledge.

And the exams can stretch into five or six hours over several weeks.

“Stamina and perseverance – those are my two top words,” Winton Principal Michelle Williams said. “The kids just need to push through and have a lot of stamina with this.”

Thousands of students across the Inland Northwest are getting their first taste of the challenging assessments aligned with Common Core, which replaces No Child Left Behind for educational standards in Washington, Idaho and 44 other states.

The exams developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium correspond to the more demanding standards, and they won’t only measure student achievement. In many places, teachers also will be evaluated in part on how well their students do on the annual SBAC exams.

“It is a totally different level of expectation from what our state standards were asking,” said Travis Schulhauser, director of assessment and program effectiveness for Spokane Public Schools. “But I think students are as prepared as we could get them prepared, not totally knowing what Smarter Balanced was going to look like.”

Kids will struggle with these tests, and schools anticipate a drop in performance at first. In Idaho, state leaders figure only about 35 percent of students will pass all four math and English exams in the first year.

The results of this year’s field test will not be shared with schools or parents, however. Instead, the assessments – to be given in 180 schools in Washington and all in Idaho – will be used to fine-tune the tests for widespread launch in 2015. That also gives participating districts time to work out the kinks in technology and scheduling, and their students gain experience with the new testing methods.

“This is kind of our dress rehearsal,” Williams said. “That’s a great opportunity for the kids and staff to go through the process one time and see how everyone approaches the test, how they feel about it when they’re done.”

About 170,000 students in Idaho will take the field tests this spring. In the Coeur d’Alene School District, 20 percent of students already have begun, said Mike Nelson, director of curriculum and assessments for the district.

As they finish, kids are asked what they think of the SBAC. “Most students are telling us that it was about what they expected,” Nelson said. “And that kind of tells us that our teachers have been doing a great job.”

In addition to Spokane Public Schools, districts in Spokane Valley, Mead, Deer Park, Cheney, Colville, Newport and Nine Mile Falls are taking part in the field test.

Students in four elementary schools and one middle school in Spokane began before spring break, with many more expected to join in next week.

A new approach

The language arts and math assessments will be given to students starting in third grade. In a few years, students will need to pass the exam in high school to graduate.

School districts have been crafting new curricula to meet the more rigorous Common Core standards, but what is being taught – and how – are only part of what’s new. How students are tested is evolving as well.

Smarter Balanced Assessments include two types of exam in each subject.

The “performance task” challenges students to apply their knowledge and skills to complex real-world problems. The goal is to measure their depth of understanding, writing and research skills, and complex analysis.

The “computer-adaptive” exam focuses more on general knowledge, and the questions adjust for each student based on the quality of responses.

“So as a student’s pattern of responses is good, the test will generate harder questions,” Nelson said. “And as the student’s pattern goes down and they’re not answering as consistently, then of course it will adjust a little bit more.”

Another big change is the pace of testing. Rather than high-pressure, timed test windows, students can chip away at the exams over several weeks, if necessary. Based on pilot tests last year, elementary students need up to six hours to complete the SBAC exams, and high school students may need 7 ½ hours to finish.

“A student can start and stop at any time,” Nelson said. “So if a student wants to take five questions for the day and end the test, they can come back the next day, continue on, they’ll be on question No. 6.”

That flexibility can help students overcome test anxiety that can hurt their performance, he said.

Students also must have a good grasp of how computers and keyboards work to take the SBAC tests. They need to type longer answers and use a mouse to drag and drop items on the screen or draw lines – abilities that will challenge kids in lower grades.

“We’ve moved keyboarding down to a first-grade skill,” Nelson said. “That’s partly because of Smarter Balanced and partly because the students are digital natives. These students are growing up with iPads in their hand, asking to play something on Mom and Dad’s cellphone. … These are the students today and this is how they interact.”

Curriculum changes

This school year is the first that teachers in Idaho and Washington have applied the Common Core standards, using new curricula developed within each school district.

It’s a major transition that will take time, even as states move now to the new assessments.

“We’re not necessarily rolling out all new curricula yet,” Schulhauser said. “We’re taking that pretty slow.”

Teachers need time to adjust to the new questioning strategies and other fundamental changes prompted by Common Core, Nelson said. “They’ve been teaching in a particular way for years and years, and doing it to the best of their ability.”

Derek Kohles, president of the Coeur d’Alene Education Association, said the new standards are great and the SBAC tests match the intent of Common Core. But teachers are concerned about how much emphasis is placed on the assessments, Kohles said.

“The problem with the SBAC is that it’s taking time away from teaching to prepare for a test,” he said.

Also weighing on teachers is how their job performance – and pay – will be determined based on the test results for their students. The Washington Education Association has pushed back against legislative plans to tie the test results to teacher evaluations. In Idaho, lawmakers already put that provision in place.

“Teachers are working incredibly hard to accomplish the task of preparing the students for a test whose primary purpose, honestly, is to determine whether teachers are doing their job,” Kohles said.

Moving so quickly from adoption of the new standards to emphasis on testing – especially while teachers are still developing materials and strategies under Common Core – creates a wave of pressure on the educational system, he said.

“It’s not that people are trying to avoid accountability,” Kohles said. “It’s that when you have all of this pressure to measure whether teachers are doing their job, the job of teachers becomes making sure that they can validate they are doing their job, rather than doing their job.”

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