This spring, over 5.2 million students across the country “tested the test” that will assess Common Core Standards starting next year. As Jaci King, Director of Higher Education Collaboration at Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, explains, “the field test was an opportunity not only in helping us gather the information we needed on how well the test questions were performing, but also an opportunity for schools to do a full practice run of administering an online assessment.”
If this dry run was any indication, the testing next year will require significant administrative preparation from schools, especially for those with less technology in the classroom.
Does Digital Assessment More Accurately Evaluate Student Knowledge?
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $330 million to two different consortiums of states in order to develop assessments for the Common Core State Standards. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) serves 21 states. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) serves 14 states and D.C.
The two assessments have one key difference: SBAC tests are computer adaptive, meaning the technology “customizes assessment to each student,” explains King. At the beginning of the test, all students start with questions of medium difficulty, which “get a little more or less difficult until the test hones in on the student’s knowledge level.” PARCC tests are “fixed,” meaning that all students will get similar questions.
This distinction points out another difference: Computer adaptive testing requires technology. SBAC assessments must be taken on internet-connected technological devices, while PARCC tests can be offered both on devices and on paper.
King sees computer adaptive testing as especially helpful for struggling students. “In fixed testing, you learn a lot about what the struggling student doesn’t know how to do, but not very much about what the struggling student does know how to do.”
But online assessments can test technological savviness in addition to academic concepts. Bill Kendall, Director of Math and Technology at Braintree Public Schools in Massachusetts, saw firsthand how new computerized tools create a challenge for students, particularly those with special needs. “It’s unfair to the kids that during the [math] test, they have to learn how to use this equation editor. That’s an unnecessary burden.” The tech tools were difficult “for our special needs students in particular,” as “highlighting and underlining,” which students did not find intuitive on the computerized exam, “are a crucial part of how they read a text,” Kendall says. “To me, PARCC is putting unnecessary obstacles in front of the students.”
Kendall hopes that PARCC will release more sample tools so that teachers and students can learn how to use them before the official testing starts next year. (As of publication, according to the PARCC website, an Equation Editor Tutorial is “Coming Soon.”) SBAC already offers these tools online “to make sure that students are oriented to all the different kinds of questions and different tools that are embedded in the software,” explains King.
But online tutorials may not be sufficient. Mike Teng is Director of Instructional Technology at Rocketship Education, a network of public elementary charter schools which primarily serves low-income students and is considered by many a pioneer of integrating technology into the classroom. Teng found the interface and tools on the SBAC tests “really confusing.” As he explains, “when you have to input a fraction, like 4 ⅗, it’s next to impossible to use these input mechanisms. It’s really difficult for myself, let alone a 10-year-old who has never used anything like that before.” The online tools and sample tests that King lauds weren’t sufficient for Teng: “I had been through all of them, for 3rd, for 4th, for 5th, for math and for ELA, and I still had not seen the breadth of manipulatives that I actually saw during the field tests.”
Should Wireless Connectivity Be the Highest Priority?
Small challenges aside, Teng acknowledges that Rocketship is better prepared for these tests than others. Rocketship has approximately one device for every three students, who are already taking computer adaptive assessments through MAP (Measures of Academic Progress). As Teng sees it, “MAP offers a kind of mini training tool,” familiarizing students with “how to highlight certain words, or the buttons for the speaker icon.” With this kind of preparation, the tests “probably went a little bit more smoothly for us than for schools that haven’t done similar testing administration,” says Teng.
The testing experience was rockier in Braintree. For those schools that did administer the PARCC assessments on devices, wireless connectivity was spotty. As Kendall explained, the Braintree technology system was “really stretched to the limit.” For the “miniscule tech department” at Braintree--six staff members for approximately 5,200 students--“it was an enormous burden for the technology team to get the machines to be PARCC ready.” The connectivity and device issues “essentially meant that for the entire period of testing, everything in the tech department had to stop, and that’s unrealistic.”
Preferential Treatment Of Certain Devices?
Although both SBAC and PARCC designed their assessments to be compatible with desktop computers, laptops and tablets, students and educators reported a variety of technological glitches, including frozen screens and set headphone volume. Several interviewed educators reported that it was difficult to restart the program when interrupted. As King acknowledges, “because of the rapidity of software upgrades,” this poses particular problems for Android devices.
Ned Kirsch, superintendent for three public school districts in Franklin County, Vermont, found the SBAC software “clunky.” Franklin County schools place high emphasis on technology: Every student in grades 6-12 has an iPad, and elementary students have access to device carts. Although the field assessments went fairly smoothly for Franklin students, Kirsch reports that colleagues in other districts found the tests worked better on Chromebooks. “I feel like enough schools use iPads that the SBAC should be tailored to any device,” objects Kirsch.
Kendall reports similar thoughts. “PARCC devices, as demonstrated by the testing, work best when they are least configured and have the least amount of software,” he explains. But in schools like Braintree High School, where 1601 students share approximately 220 computers, “our computer labs are built for everybody, so we want as many things installed for as many users as possible.”
Side Benefits of Tech Integration?
Tests or no tests, the Common Core does make technology a priority for many schools.
As Teng muses, “at a school where they had to purchase laptops or Chromebooks just to take this test, where they had to up the bandwidth just in order to do this test properly, that’s going to have a positive impact, either directly or indirectly. If it means that kids have to learn how to type and be more fluent with computers, then maybe [computerized testing] does have a positive effect.”
Kendall certainly sees benefits from the increased integration of technology into schools that PARCC requires. But the rapid speed and high cost worry him. “To get us PARCC ready, you’re looking at a bill of about $800,000,” he estimates. For a public school district serving over 5,000 students, that’s a hefty goal for the next year, particularly without any additional funding from the state of Massachusetts.
As Kendall and others see it, in districts like Braintree--not to mention many with less resources available--“It’s certainly spurring us to improve our technology, but how quickly can we really do this?”
Kirsch issues a word of caution: “I just don’t think you should be making a decision about technology for kids based on once-a-year assessment.”
Don’t Let the Test Drag Common Core Down
Both consortiums will issue comprehensive reports later this summer and offer more prep materials online. PARCC plans to compare student performance on paper assessments and on different devices. And SBAC is looking for help, adds King: Since its software is all open source, “we’ll really be encouraging the open source code writing community to get interested and propose improvements to the software.”
Despite the “enormous challenge for students and school systems” created by the online exam, Kendall says he’s in favor of PARCC and the Common Core Standards. “I’m really afraid that people are going to associate PARCC and the Common Core with technology, and throw out ed reforms that are really needed.” Although testing may have been easier with the previous standards, Kendall insists that Common Core Standards are worth the hassle, compared to the “nightmare” of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.
If the educators interviewed at ISTE are an indicator, Kendall isn’t alone in his views. He explains, “I know that Common Core has become a political football, but I think it’s great that we could have a national curriculum that’s as high as the Common Core. I just really don’t want the good testing and the good curriculum to be thrown out because of unnecessary technology problems.”
Editor's Note: King adds that SBAC will offer a pen and paper version for the next few years. There will be a pre-test that will point students to the right level exam for them.