Karla DeMaris’ 11th-grade English students at Penquis Valley High School in Milo will soon join students from across Maine and 16 other states in the start of a new spring ritual.
In the coming weeks, they’ll take the Smarter Balanced standardized tests in math and English, which have replaced the paper-and-pencil, fill-in-the-bubble tests of yore.
The Smarter Balanced assessment is designed to judge students’ mastery of the Common Core standards for math and English, and it’s given via computer rather than on paper with a No. 2 pencil. It relies on computer-adaptive technology designed to pinpoint students’ ability levels, giving students more difficult questions if they answer the preceding ones correctly and easier questions if they don’t.
As the Smarter Balanced test and one other multi-state test based on the Common Core roll out this spring, the calls across the country for parents to opt their students out of testing are reaching new levels.
In New Jersey, the teachers’ union is running a six-week advertising campaign against the multi-state test to be given in that state — developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. In Colorado, another PARCC state, the state Board of Education voted to let school districts skip portions of the test before the state attorney general overruled the decision.
In Maine, the Lewiston school board in February voted to actively inform parents of their right to keep their children from participating in testing, a move supported by the state’s teachers’ union, the Maine Education Association. At Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, more than half the junior class has opted out of Smarter Balanced testing scheduled for Saturdays.
But at Penquis Valley High School, the focus is more on the logistics than on opting out.
“I think it’s a very challenging test,” DeMaris said. “The biggest challenge, at least in our school here, will be use of technology to take the test. The kids all have iPads, and the tests are tricky to take on an iPad.”
And convincing students to take the test seriously will pose another challenge, she said.
“If they feel that it’s not going on their report card, a number of them will not take it seriously, and then they click through the answers to get to the end of the test, and then it’s not measuring anything,” DeMaris said.
The Smarter Balanced test is a fundamentally different kind of test from the standardized tests Maine has used for more than a decade since federal law started requiring annual testing. Not only is it delivered via computer or tablet, the questions are different. There are substantially fewer multiple-choice questions and more requiring written responses. The questions are designed to test students’ problem-solving skills and higher-order thinking rather than rote memorization.
DeMaris’ students have taken practice Smarter Balanced tests to prepare for the real thing.
“They were able to get through it,” she said. “I think that their biggest complaint was that it seemed wordy. There were more words on the page than they thought were necessary.”
The preparation hasn’t been too time-consuming for students, she said, though it has required more time of teachers, who have received training on how to administer the test. Since this is the first year, it will largely be an adjustment year, DeMaris said.
“I hope that no one puts too much stock in the results this first year,” she said. “They’re really just learning to manipulate the controls on the test. They need to get used to it.”
Smarter Balanced results should be available sooner than paper test results traditionally have been, but they won’t be available in time for teachers this year to use the results to tailor their instruction for current students. But DeMaris already uses another computer-adaptive test, the NWEA, to determine her students’ ability levels in the fall, then again in May.
“It will come later on to the point where we’ll want to tweak our lesson plans to cover what’s being tested” by Smarter Balanced, DeMaris said. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“If we’re going to give them a reading exercise, we’ll give them some of these higher-order thinking questions,” she said. “Maybe that’s a good wakeup call to us.”