by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Adam Ebrahim, with Karrisa Adams and Rachel Salinas
A student moves trees all over his computer screen with abandon, and soon the entire screen is covered in trees. Is the student creating an art project — or perhaps playing his own version of a video game to see who can move trees into squares the fastest?
It’s neither, actually. The student In Terri Jackson’s sixth-grade math class is supposed to be practicing for the new, computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessment Field Test, solving a ratio problem of having three elm trees to every two pine trees inside a square.
“That was a funny example of students practicing for the test,” says Jackson, a teacher at Stewart Elementary School in Pinole and CTA Board member. “I told him he needed to take it seriously, but it’s hard when students are used to playing games on computers instead of taking tests on them.”
In a “debrief” after the practice test, students say they enjoy being tested on the computer because it’s fun. Others say they miss the old California Standards Tests and being able to answer questions without explaining their work.
The practice test is in preparation for the field test being administered to all students statewide in grades 3-8 and 11 between March 18 and June 6, in what some call a “dress rehearsal.” The field test of more than 3 million students will evaluate the quality of test questions to ensure they are valid and fair, and serves as a barometer to assess schools’ computer and server capacity, as well as the computer skills of students.
Gov. Brown and lawmakers approved AB 484, a CTA-supported bill, which eliminated outdated standardized testing this year and provided a year of field testing only on the new standards. The law also created a three-year moratorium on using state testing results for accountability purposes.
Going from a multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble paper test to an open-ended computer test is a huge leap. While there are still some multiple-choice questions, multimedia technology allows students to respond in new ways, such as editing text or drawing an object. Students are asked in some cases to demonstrate and explain how they arrived at their responses. The test is “adaptive,” which means that the complexity of the questions increases or decreases based on student responses. There is also a performance task component, which asks students to complete a series of steps, culminating in a final product.
The group behind the new assessments is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), one of two multistate member groups funded by the U.S. Department of Education to develop assessment systems aligned to the CCSS. California is one of 27 states taking part in Smarter Balanced, which allows teachers to get results from computerized assessments within weeks instead of months.
It’s actually three tests, because California purchased the “premium package” that includes two interim assessments and a summative assessment, so test results throughout the year can inform teachers of where they should adjust instruction.
Gov. Jerry Brown added $1.25 billion to the budget to help school districts implement the Common Core, and much of that is going toward technology. Jackson says her school purchased new computers that are Wi-Fi accessible, unlike the old computers that were slow and cumbersome.
While 83 percent of all California schools are connected to the California Department of Education’s K-12 High Speed Network, they may not have high-speed Internet, and some lack sufficient computers, keyboards or bandwidth to run the test that uses videos and animated graphics and interactive features in test questions. Some students have been bused to other schools or are taking tests on leased mobile computer labs. In some schools, students are being tested a few at a time to avoid crashing the system, reports Deb Sigman, deputy superintendent of the CDE.
Students in Jackson’s class like the computers, but the questions — not so much.
“I enjoyed testing on the computer as well as disliked it,” says one. “It was fun testing on something new. But it was difficult with the mouse.”
In a practice test in Felipe Lemus’ class at Calwa Elementary in Fresno, it took a half hour for third-graders to log in. The computers didn’t have headsets, and noise from videos playing on the tablets was distracting. Students shouted for help over the noise level, and heard from their teacher, “I can’t help you, this is a test.”
Things can only improve, says Lemus, looking frazzled, explaining that his students haven’t had much practice with computers, except for machines in the school’s computer lab that are much different from the tablets his school uses for testing.
How can educators become more knowledgeable about the test?
One of the best ways is visiting the Smarter Balanced website (www.smarterbalanced.org) and looking at “item specifications and blueprints,” which show the standards, how they are clustered and how they are assessed at different DOK (depth of knowledge) levels, suggests Adam Ebrahim, an eighth-grade history and design technology teacher at Cooper Academy in Fresno, who is a Smarter Balanced ambassador.
He was selected by NEA to participate in the Teachers Ambassadors Project, which is a partnership among the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, and WestEd.
Ebrahim likes the new assessment, but the Fresno Teachers Association member worries that Smarter Balanced could someday be misused in a punitive way, becoming STAR Test, The Sequel.
“I worry that districts will plug in the new assessments into existing, high-stakes, curriculum-narrowing mechanisms that are bad for teachers and terrible for students,” he explains.
He hopes the new test will eliminate teaching to the test.
“The best way to prepare students for this test is not to teach to this test. The best way to prepare yourself and your kids is by being knowledgeable about how the test functions, and then creating rich learning experiences for students that engage the standards in different contexts and across different content areas that will make learning more engaging for the student. It gives them the ability to transfer and apply knowledge. It will also provide teachers with the best kind of feedback on what students are learning.”
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