May 12, 2015

‘Smarter Balanced’ testing has problems

By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer

McKenzie County Public School District #1 students will continue their testing on the newly-adopted  statewide ‘Smarter Balanced’ assessment for a couple more weeks - completing the weeks-long testing by the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
According to Steve Holen, McKenzie County Public School District #1 superintendent, the fact that the assessment is electronic, there’s had to be a lot more coordination of computers, with less computer labs and more kids. Therefore, there have been a few technical difficulties in the administration of the assessment, and it has been a little bit of a longer process than what they have been used to in years prior.
“Based on the electronic nature of this new statewide assessment however, we should be able to get results back a lot quicker,” said Holen. “I’m hopeful that we can get the results in a time frame in which we could actually use the results to try and better meet Common Core standards in our classrooms.”
The downside, according to Holen,  is that the new assessment has taken a lot of time away from curriculum and classroom instruction time. But because technology is data-driven, he feels that the school district needs good data so they’re trying to be open-minded with the new assessment.
According to Holen, in years past, results from various assessments could take anywhere from eight to nine months to get back. And by that time, there has been such a time-lapse that it is not very beneficial when it comes to implementing something new or different into classroom instruction or the curriculum in a timely manner. With this new assessment and the fact that it’s electronic, Holen is hoping to get results back sometime this summer.
Although the McKenzie County Public School District was not directly involved in the selection of what assessment program to choose for the state, the actual process of deciding on and initiating the new ‘Smarter Balanced’ assessment in the state of North Dakota was an extensive process that took a great amount of deliberation. It was an assessment chosen that state educators felt best aligned to the Common Core standards.
“Initially, everyone was concerned with the mechanism of the assessment,” stated Holen. “It’s probably more extensive of a test than what we’re used to in the time frame we’re used to. There’s probably more writing going on in this test than what we’re used to and it’s a little more rigorous.”
The initial part of the assessment involved a great deal of logistics, according to Holen. And as is with any change or anything new, there’s going to be a level of frustration, which was true of this newly-adopted assessment. Other than the logistics, Holen felt that for the most part, his staff was embracing of it and open-minded to it.
Holen said there’s always a debate: does the school district test too much or not enough? He says that if the district uses the data, it’s helpful. But if not, it’s a waste of time.  Ultimately, however, the results of the assessment will show how effective the school district has been in what they’re teaching students.
According to Holen, despite the rigorousness of the new assessment and the nervousness and anticipation from the students, there’s a sense that the students were taking the testing seriously. Holen says the teachers have worked hard to show the students that the results are important and will show the reality of where the school district stands, educationally. Holen also said the students have been pretty resilient and have just ‘rolled’ with what’s going on.
“This is just a piece to add to the other assessments we administer to determine intervention,” said Holen, “to determine what we need to do better. It will tell us what is working and what’s not working. It will enhance the continuity and alignment of the curriculum. And it will help to refine any gaps in the curriculum with nine different grade sections.”
Holen added that this assessment and its results will be the district’s first true piece of data directly related to Common Core. As a school district, it’s his hope to be able to use the results to improve what they already do. Student achievement, in Holen’s opinion, is what the assessment was meant for.
“We’re open-minded with it and we are not concerned about it,” said Holen. “We’ll just keep going on.”
Holen said the school district understands parent’s concerns with the new statewide assessment, and they are more than willing to answer any questions there might be regarding the testing.
Because of the mixed responses derived from the new statewide assessment, last Friday, May 1, North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said that she is assembling a task force to study future options for the assessment of North Dakota students.
This was the first year North Dakota schools used the new online assessment to measure student learning in math and English. It was drafted by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and administered by a company called Measured Progress.
Baesler said a thorough process was used to evaluate proposals from assessment companies. The Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) assessment team consulted with the state procurement office and lawyers from the attorney general’s office, then offered a contract that outlined the DPI’s specific expectations and requirements for successful execution of the online state assessment.
Baesler also said that the contractors have not met the DPI’s expectations. She added that she has been consulting with the attorney general’s office since early April regarding the assessment problems and trying to protect North Dakota’s interests. Baesler said that she will continue to evaluate the Department of Public Instruction’s legal options.
“It is our priority to guard the taxpayer’s investment,” said Baesler, “and to ensure that the testing problems that have occurred do not happen again. I am disappointed at the way this rollout has occurred.”
In 2013, according to Baesler,  the state’s school leaders recommended that they embark on this ambitious effort to give a statewide online exam. They spent two years getting ready and they were there. Baesler added that their systems were ready and they were ready.
“I am frustrated at the disruption,” said Baesler, “and the problems the testing has caused in some of our schools.”
The superintendent said she is establishing a task force to examine what North Dakota needs and values from assessments and what other testing options might be available. The task force will then determine what will best meet the needs of the children and parents of North Dakota in the future.
Baesler said the task force will include parents who have children in public and private schools, home educators, representatives of higher education and the K-12 school system, legislators and business and industry representatives.
Baesler said regular student assessments provide a snapshot of how well students are learning the information they need to know, and their ability to apply that knowledge to practical situations. The assessment is also required by law. State and federal law requires that the North Dakota State Assessment in math and English be given to students in grades three through eight and grade 11.
“These assessments help our teachers to improve their instruction,” stated Baesler. “They show the people of North Dakota the results of the money they invest in our public schools.”
As of Thursday, May 7, 74 percent of the math and English test components have been given to North Dakota students. They will continue to be given until the end of the school year. According to McKenzie County Public School District #1 Superintendent Steve Holen, Watford City High School students have pretty much completed their assessment testing. However, Watford City Elementary School students were still currently testing and would be for the next couple of weeks.
“This high completion rate,” said Baesler, “is due to the sheer determination, hard work ethic, perseverance and grit of our North Dakota people, the students, the teachers in our schools, the administrators, and employees at EduTech and the Department of Public Instruction.”
Baesler said some technical challenges are not uncommon when a new technology project is put into service, but that the assessment system’s difficulties went well beyond normal start-up problems.