Schools Test-Drive Common Core

By Leslie Harris O'Hanlon — June 11, 2013 7 min read
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More than a million students across the country have traded their No. 2 pencils, test booklets, and bubble sheets for computing devices to participate in a pilot of math and English/language arts online assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium launched a pilot of its computer assessments to glean information about the performance of different test questions and the test-delivery system under real-world conditions. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, another consortium developing online tests for the common core, also has piloted some of its prototype online-assessment questions to support educators as they transition to the new standards and to PARCC assessments.

Although there were bumps in the road for some schools that took part in the pilot testing, many educators say test-driving the assessments helped them better understand how they need to prepare for the time when all their students in grades 3-12 take the new tests, starting in 2014-15.


Don Matthews, the director of educational services for the 1,400 student Larkspur-Corte Madera school district in California, says that involvement in pilot testing has made him and others think hard about what they need to do to improve their technological infrastructure to support online testing. About 300 5th and 6th graders from his district were tested in the Smarter Balanced pilot in April. The students used MacBook laptops to take the tests.

“We want to make sure our technology is compatible and as flawless as possible,” Matthews says. “Obviously, there is concern that if computers are three years old, they won’t be able to do certain things. So we are examining what we have in place and determining what we need to have in place to do what we need to do with online testing.”

The district plans to upgrade its Wi-Fi system and bandwidth this summer, he says. It is also considering buying more devices so that students can take the online assessments in their classrooms and in the library, rather than having them all in computer labs.

“We are looking at [Google] Chromebooks,” says Matthews, referring to the devices, which are similar to netbooks. “They are a very affordable option compared to buying laptops, and they are compatible. They also are good for portability.”

Preparing Test Administrators

One of the most important lessons learned for some Vermont educators was that not only do the students need to be prepared for the assessments, but so do test administrators, says Paul Smith, a curriculum and assessment specialist for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, a school district of 2,600 students in Brattleboro, Vt. While it was a relatively minor bump, there was some confusion about how to log students into the system and other procedures during pilot testing. Sixty students in grades 4, 6, and 7 used mostly Mac laptops to take the Smarter Balanced pilot test in April.

“It was a new set of procedures, and we need a couple of times to go through it to practice it,” Smith says. “If I introduce a new piece of software to staff, there is a learning curve there. This is the exact same thing.”

About 1,300 students in the 90,000-student Albuquerque public schools in New Mexico took part in a PARCC prototype pilot last year. Out of the 20 schools in the pilot, 14 had connectivity problems, says Michael Loughrey, the district’s assessment manager. In a high school class of 34 students taking the test in a computer lab, almost all the participants kept getting bounced off the system one after the other. Students mostly used desktop computers to take the tests.

“We never did figure out why this happened,” Loughrey says.

Rose-Ann McKernan, the executive director of instructional accountability for the Albuquerque schools, says the technology director for the district is worried about server and network capacity at the schools. Making all the necessary upgrades could cost millions of dollars, she says.

The district could use money from the state allocated to schools for technology to buy new computers and to make other technology improvements, McKernan says. The district may also appeal to the state legislature for more funds for technology improvements.

But with all the talk of money and how it should be spent, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind, McKernan points out.

“People are stepping back and saying we are not just talking about network and devices for testing, but about making upgrades in technology for our whole educational system for students as well as for testing,” she says. “So how do we upgrade for that across the board?”

‘Pleasantly Surprised’

When it comes to children’s ability to take a test on a computer rather than with paper and pencil, many district officials around the country say their students had no problems adapting to the new format.

“I was pleasantly surprised that these third graders were able to maneuver from problem to problem much better than I had anticipated,” says Kent Henson, the assistant superintendent for instructional services for the West Ottawa public schools in Holland, Mich. About 240 students in the 7,200-student district took tests in the Smarter Balanced pilot this spring.

Henson says: “They had to drag and drop, to highlight, and they had to compare and contrast. They had to write a letter. They had to watch a video, which meant putting on headphones. They had to fill in boxes on a table. There were a lot of different mouse-manipulation tasks.”

The pilot test questions were a mix of multiple-choice questions, problem solving, short-answer responses, and other tasks. Students had to drag and drop answers into different boxes.

Some districts in Michigan experienced technical difficulties with the pilot testing, he says.

“I heard about schools that had issues with servers that weren’t working. Some kids were kicked out [of the system] or it wouldn’t accept their login,” says Henson. “I heard that in one-to-one [computing] schools where kids were taking these tests on laptops of various kinds, they had [technical] problems.”

McKernan of the Albuquerque district says joining in the PARCC pilot was eye-opening for teachers because they could see how the common standards will be assessed.

“It makes things more concrete. It leaves less room for each of us to interpret the standards in our own way,” she says. “It isn’t about assessment driving instruction. It’s about assessment articulating the expectations in a more concrete fashion. That was very helpful for our teachers.”

Matthews of California’s Larkspur-Corte Madera schools also says the pilot was helpful for teachers to know in what ways students will be asked to show what they know.

“Common-core standards are more rigorous, with more of an emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving,” he says. “So this pilot helped to inform their instruction because teachers saw how learning is going to be measured in the future.”

Some students who were comfortable with the technology itself struggled with the actual content of the test, according to some district officials.

“They loved doing math on the computer, and they are very quick with the mouse,” Loughrey, the assessment manager in Albuquerque, says. But after observing a 6th grade class taking the test, he asked the teacher about how she felt her students handled the material.

“She said that while they may say that they did fine, her sense was that a lot of them struggled with the material,” he says. “The problems were rigorous. They pushed the kids.”

‘Assessing With Intent’

Albuquerque and other districts are doing a lot of work to make sure both teachers and students are familiar with the new standards."There is a lot of curricular work necessary to make sure things are mapped out properly and that content is in sync with the standards,” says Pat Cummings, the director of research and evaluation for the 30,000-student Tacoma, Wash., public schools. About 800 students participated in a Smarter Balanced pilot in April, using mostly laptops, and some PCs, to take the tests.

“You want a kid to take a test that relates to what is going on in the classroom,” Cummings says. “The only way to make the Smarter Balanced assessments meaningful is if common core is effectively integrated into the coursework.”

Not only do teachers need to adjust their curricula to meet the new standards, they also will need to adjust how they are framing questions to test students throughout the year, educators say.

“We need to be writing rigorous and challenging assessments,” Henson says. “If all we are doing is giving multiple-choice questions, then we are doing our kids a disservice.”

The biggest idea that the pilots underscored for many educators was that the key for getting ready for the tests is not just getting the technology ready, but also having students and teachers know the standards.

“I think we have to make sure we are teaching and assessing with intent on the common core,” Henson says. “It is really skills-based. Reading, writing, and listening skills are a huge part of being able to take that test.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Test-Driving the Common Core

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