Students across the Palo Alto Unified School District are sitting down to computers over the next few weeks to take the state's new Smarter Balanced Assessments, which for the first time this year will yield an entirely different set of standardized test scores, marking a shift in how the state measures student performance.
Juana Briones Elementary School kicked off the testing last week, with the other elementary, middle and high schools following suit this week and through mid-May. Palo Alto's third- through eighth-graders and high school juniors are taking computer-adaptive tests in English-language arts and math for the second time they, along with the rest of the state, piloted the test last year but for the first time this year, their schools will receive the results.
Since there was no feedback or data provided from last year's trial run of the Smarter Balanced tests, school district officials and site administrators are largely in the dark about what the new results will look like or how the measurements will be broken down.
"This is new for everyone," said Chris Kolar, the district's new director of research and assessment. "I think that it will take some time for us, when we get (the results) back, to understand what they mean."
Smarter Balanced is the new assessment for the Common Core State Standards, which California adopted in 2010. The more than 20 states that have adopted the new standards worked in collaboration with K-12 educators in 2012 to develop the new test, which replaced the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program and with it, paper and pencil multiple-choice exams. The Smarter Balanced test is done entirely on computers at all grade levels, with a format that is meant to gauge students' mastery of concepts and skills. The new test is aligned with the Common Core values of critical thinking, analytical writing and more authentic assessments meant to engage students in real-world applications of what they learn in the classroom. The test is also adaptive, meaning the software adjusts the difficulty of questions as a student moves through so that his or her results can better illustrate what skills he or she has mastered or needs to improve on.
Smarter Balanced's ultimate goal is to assess whether students are on track to pursue college or a career by the time they graduate from high school, which will likely mean radically different and more comprehensive measurements than the STAR test's "advanced," "proficient," "basic" and "far below/below basic."
A frequently-asked-questions page on the California Department of Education website warns, "based on trial runs of the new assessments in California and other states, many if not most students will need to make significant progress to reach the standards set for math and literacy that accompany college and career readiness." The page also notes that when the STAR exam began in 2002, the tests also set a new baseline for achievement, and student results quickly improved over time.
Janine Penney, manager of research, evaluation and assessment for the Palo Alto school district, cautioned parents and staff about making any comparisons with past standardized measurements when the district receives the Smarter Balanced results, which the state says will be no more than four weeks after a school completes its testing. (Results will be reported to the public by the state in August or later. Detailed individual reports will be mailed to families in late summer/early fall.)
"We're not talking apples to oranges. We're not talking about fruit. It's apples to toothpicks. They're completely different measurements," Penney said.
They're also completely different tests, and much more aligned with the way Palo Alto teachers say they have long viewed classroom instruction.
The test has three components: a classroom activity that is meant to be completed several days before the test to prepare students generally; the computer-adaptive test; and a "performance task," which Smarter Balanced describes as "collections of questions and activities that are coherently connected to a single theme or scenario ... meant to measure capacities such as depth of understanding, writing and research skills, and complex analysis, which cannot be adequately assessed with traditional assessment questions."
Last year's pilot English-language arts exam for Palo Alto juniors, for example, asked students to write a persuasive essay in support of their response to the question, "Should art be publicly funded?" Students were provided source materials, including magazine editorials and historical documents. Palo Alto High School English teacher Erin Angell said this kind of interdisciplinary assessment is a marked change from the content-driven, more static standardized tests of the past.
"I think the primary shift (in Smarter Balanced) was about cross-integration of different reading materials and that the reading task would be a comprehensive discussion of those different texts whereas previously, like with the STAR and the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam), it would be, 'look at this piece of literature,' or 'look at this nonfiction text, and write about it in isolation,'" she said.
"For me, as a history teacher, there's been a little bit of liberation because instead of being so focused on content specifics, we're now focused on analysis and what you can derive from the documents," echoed Paly history teacher Eric Bloom.
Smarter Balanced also provides optional interim assessments that are similarly structured so teachers have ways to measure student growth outside of the annual testing window.
While many school principals said their staff and students felt largely prepared to take the new test content-wise, the focus in the weeks leading up to the test was on getting all involved accustomed to the technology. Staff meetings at some schools were turned over to trainings, and many students across the district took practice tests to familiarize themselves with how to log on to the secure browser and how to navigate the test once they were on. The test also includes supports for English-language learners and students with special needs. Strategies emerged on handling issues that wouldn't come up with a paper-and-pencil test, like what to do if a student doesn't know the answer to a question but wants to come back to it.
"In the past we used to tell students, 'If a question is hard, just put a little mark by it and come back to it later,'" said Lisa Hickey, principal of Juana Briones Elementary School. "That doesn't work at all. You have to answer the questions before you can move on. ... For most of (the students) it's going great and it's fine but there are a couple where if they get frustrated on one they can't really move on to the next one. That's been a challenge for us."
Hickey said the pilot test last year sparked conversations at Juana Briones about when to begin teaching typing (the school currently offers some formalized teaching instruction at the beginning of third grade).
Kolar said the district will be doing its part this summer to prepare its data systems and make sure that whatever comes back, "that data is going to be usable for both principals and teachers this fall."
Palo Alto parent Gina Dalma, senior program officer at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and also director of grantmaking for the Silicon Valley Common Core Initiative, said the real rubber will meet the road at this point.
"The tests will be hard, but what you do with the results will be harder," she wrote in an email. "Principals will have a challenge communicating to their teachers the changes needed to succeed under these new tests. If the info is swept under the rug and we fail to understand that these results will only be a baseline but they give us worthwhile info we will waste a huge opportunity for deeper learning."