Common Core education standards are changing the way schools test children [San Bernardino County Sun, Calif. :: ]
(San Bernardino County Sun (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 13--More than 30 sixth-graders sat at computers at Country Springs Elementary School in Chino Hills, but they weren't facing the monitors.
Instead, they were watching a screen at the front of the room, where a video told them something rarely heard in schools today:
"You are not being tested," the narrator explained. "The questions themselves are being tested."
This spring, in California and states across the nation, the usual barrage of standardized tests have been put on hold. California districts are getting at least a two-year reprieve from the ubiquitous Academic Performance Index scores used to track the quality of schools and districts over time.
Instead, educators are preparing for the next big thing: The new Smarter Balanced English-language arts and mathematics tests aligned to the new Common Core standards that school districts have already begun using in classrooms. The new tests emphasize a deeper knowledge of subjects, displaying use of the reasoning process and the ability to give complex answers, and not just skill at choosing the correct answer out of four possible choices.
The nationwide field test started at the end of March and ends on June 6.
"It is an odd circumstance to not have an API score this year, since we've been so geared up for that," said Mike Snellings, assistant superintendent for educational services, Colton Joint Unified School District. "But it does give us a little bit of breathing room to work through the kinks ourselves."
They need the ramp-up time: Unlike the familiar California Standards Tests, the new Smarter Balanced tests aren't conducted by filling in little circles with a No. 2 pencil. Instead, they're adaptive tests taken via computer, administered via the Internet.
"There're going to be glitches with anything new, especially involving technology, but that's why we're having this no-stakes (testing) year," said Christopher Clarke, principal of Arminta Street Elementary in North Hollywood.
Back at Country Springs Elementary, all of the school's third- through sixth-graders are participating in the field test, after an initial session teaching them how to log on and actually take the tests themselves.
"Even though you won't get scores assigned to you, we still want you to try your best," Country Springs Assistant Principal Emyr Rich told the students.
Testing the test
Students taking the California Standards Tests are engaged in a nationwide "test of the test," applying the testing software in an attempt to head off the same sort of technological crises that plagued the Obamacare rollout over the last year.
"We want to imagine every possible disaster that could happen and plan for it," said Carlye Olsen, director of accountability, staff development and educational technology for the Whittier Union High School District. "Why do you do fire drills? It's not just to know where to go; it's to make sure the bell works and the path is clear."
The new structure of the tests also requires school districts just starting to recover from years of economic hardship to invest in new technology, from network infrastructure to computers and tablets to peripherals.
The sudden demand for headphones to take the audio portions of some tests has led to a backlog at the distribution level, according to Pasadena Unified spokesman Adam Wolfson.
"We have 35 iPads. One of them doesn't work," said Clarke, the Arminta school principal. "I sat through the last 45 minutes of testing, and a lot of students had problems, and the iPads were falling offline. ... But as we get iPads in their hands and they get more comfortable with the technology, things will improve in future years."
Los Angeles Unified officials have assured Clarke that the school's Internet connection will be better next year, when students are slated to take the actual test. "They're taking it very seriously," Clarke said. "We're being assured by next school year that we'll have much faster connectivity."
No test scores are being generated by students this year; rather, it's a test to see how both the local and national network infrastructure can handle the load of students taking tests and whether the tests themselves work properly.
"We still don't know what actually happens when everyone goes online all at once," said Pasadena Unified Superintendent Jon R. Gundry. He and his staff were at Pasadena High School, where more than 100 educators crowded into a cafeteria, hunched over Chromebooks, learning how to log on to the Smarter Balanced site and administer the new tests.
"Things like YouTube that use a lot of bandwidth, we're going to slow down on (teachers using) that during testing," said Tim Stowe, chief academic officer for Torrance Unified. "We're also working to double our bandwidth, and that should help, too."
Although school districts have worked to make sure all their students understand how to use a mouse and other aspects of a computer, younger kids who haven't written long essays on computers are unlikely to be as proficient as schools might want them to be.
"One of the things several of us parents were concerned about was (students) knowing the keyboard," said Denise Jury, president of the Redlands Council of PTAs. "That's something a lot of kids don't know yet."
And some worry that students with exposure to computers at home will have an advantage over their peers.
"Some of what they're going to be testing through the next few years is how well the kids use technology," said Gundry of Pasadena Unified. His district currently only has one Chromebook -- a low-cost, low-end Google laptop dependent on Internet connectivity -- available for every four students. "And that's unfortunate."
Districts across Southern California are trying to minimize the impact of the technology gap.
"We're looking at typing and manipulation of the touchpad on the Chromebook so that doesn't become an issue for whether a student scores well or not," Stowe said.. "If there's a district that's not concerned about that, I want to visit them."
But the investment should end up paying dividends year-round:
"Our kids had zero access to technology at school, but now, with the Common Core, and the testing on the computer, I've got three computer labs at my school," said Wendy Claflin, principal of Colin Powell Elementary School in Long Beach. "This is bringing them to a whole other level of equity."
Questioning the questions
But beyond the technology issues are the test questions themselves: Educators have long mocked the multiple-choice thinking encouraged -- some say demanded -- by 13 years of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its stiff penalties for districts that don't show continuing improvement on academic benchmarks. Even districts with high API scores have found themselves failing to continue to improve enough and thus eager to eke out every test score improvement they can.
Educators like to share "I Choose C," a video that allegedly portrays the impact of more than a dozen years of students being taught test-taking strategies alongside (or instead of) an actual deep understanding of a subject. In it, a graduate in a job interview, when asked tough questions, repeatedly announces that she chooses answer "C," because her teacher told her that, when in doubt, just guess that on tests.
The Common Core standards emphasize deeper understanding of fewer topics in a class and the ability to show how students arrived at answers. The Smarter Balanced tests even limit the ability of students to cheat off their peers. Questions are shuffled and students will not all see the exact same sets of questions on all tests.
The approach has been embraced by many parents:
"I think it's going to be great for the kids because it's going to teach them how to use reasoning," said Jury of the Redlands PTA. In recent years, "they've just been taught how to give the right answer, not how to get to the right answer."
But the shift is requiring a major adjustment for others:
"Just because my kid can't explain his thinking, but he's getting the math right, why isn't he getting the highest mark on his report card?" Torrance Unified's Stowe said parents will ask. "That's a big shift for parents."
The new approach is working for students, even measured by the older tests, Claflin said.
"We're not really emphasizing teaching to the benchmark any more, but (a second-grade teacher) said a higher percentage of her kids are above grade level ... because we have a more rigorous program now," Claflin said.
Some are skeptical about the questions on the new test:
"I look at some of the samples and think 'Really? Some of the adults can't answer this,'" said Pasadena's Gundry. "Every time we show parents the sample questions, there's a roar in the room, because parents can't answer."
That will change, according to Claflin.
"When we first had the (Standardized Testing and Reporting) test ... they were looking at some district assessments that were trying to mirror the test, and (a former Long Beach Unified superintendent) was saying 'I bet most of us couldn't do this test,'" she said.
Some parents are nervous about what the changes mean for their children's college futures:
"My office takes at least a dozen phone calls a day" from parents, said Dan Sosa, Chino Valley Unified's director of assessment and instructional technology. But they needn't worry: "Colleges and businesses were on the forefront in 2010 saying we need better standards for our kids," he said.
"What we're hearing from (the business community) is very supportive of what we're trying to do," Stowe said. This year's field test may not be the end of pilot testing, in the opinion of some educators.
"I think they're going to benchmark again next year" and do another field test, said Tendaji Jamal, director of information technology for Pasadena Unified.
"Change is always scary, but it can also be very exhilarating," Claflin said. "That outweighs the panic."
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