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Lessons from the Field, Part 1

Lessons from the Field, Part 1

Many districts across the nation are breathing a sigh of relief now that Common Core Field Testing is complete for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced (SBAC) testing consortiums.  Over 5 million students have had an “official” opportunity to experience how the new assessments will operate; while educators and district leaders evaluated their preparedness to administer online assessments.

An official report documenting user experiences from test administrators and school/district leaders participating in the PARCC test is due later this summer.  However, reporters at Education Week and other news outlets have already begun assessing how well districts were able to manage the process. Ed Week’s initial findings from a snapshot of 29 districts in 24 of the 36 participating states indicates that despite technological glitches, online testing was smoother than anticipated and the test is proving to be more rigorous than states current exams.

So, what were some of the early take-a-ways from the new assessments?

  • Prior experience with online testing helped to facilitate positive field testing experiences.

School districts transitioning from paper based assessments to online assessments wrestled with technology logistics; students also struggled to navigate through the assessment to answer questions that required advanced computer skills.  For example:

Princiapl Deborah Warr of Knollwood Heights Elementary School in South Dakota remarked:  "Our students don't necessarily have a lot of experience navigating different frames or highlighting things on the computer, so this has been an eye-opening experience for our teachers, to see what we need to be preparing students for; starting in kindergarten, we need to do a lot more work just navigating the computer."

Moving forward, it will be critical for school districts to build in more learning opportunities that ensure students are exposed to, and practice answering questions using technology-enhanced item design.  Sample test questions are available on both consortium websites; Edmentum also embeds technology-enhanced items in our online solutions.  Technology enhanced items allow greater variability in measuring Depth of Knowledge(DOK) and increases technical competence.

  • Investment in technology readiness and sound IT communication plans aided smoother field testing procedures.

Both PARCC and SBAC include released technology requirements for their respective assessment well in advance of the field test and continue to provide updated information to ensure districts are prepared for online assessment.  Over the last several years, numerous school districts embarked on projects to overhaul hardware, bandwidth and upgrade networks.  Additionally, software checks and updates conducted before initial testing further confirmed readiness.  CTO Will Reid of Pulaski County Special School District shared that “his staff loaded computers with Java and other software updates and tested every computer's functionality ahead of time.”  Additionally, the district credited a bandwidth upgrade and lots of upfront technology work with an uneventful PARCC field testing experience.

As school districts continue to prepare technology assets for the operational assessments in the 2014-2015 school year,  readiness will not only meet the testing requirement; but has the ability to benefit student learning.  By providing more opportunities to access instructional technology resources, teachers can engage and motivate in ways that support critical thinking and deeper application of learning.

  • Initial student responses indicate that the test was challenging compared to previous state tests.

While statistical analysis is being performed on the field test items to determine difficulty, accuracy and fairness, students offered their own evaluation of the assessment.

Students from Redlands School District, CA

When I heard that we were going to take the Smarter Balanced test on a computer, I was excited because we were finally trying something new and modern

What I liked about the California State Test (CST) was that I was used to filling in the bubbles. (I’ve done it for three years.) Also, they seemed easier than the SBAC; because you didn’t have to explain how you got your answer, just fill them in.

The math performance task was the most challenging of all. It was about turtle habitats. That test only had six questions, but it was still long and confusing. You had to do many steps to find your answer, and when you finally got your answer, it was hard to operate the controls on the screen. For example, when you typed in a mixed number, it would put your whole number in the fraction box.

Nicole Russo of Massachusetts, who has taken the PARCC test, said that it was much more difficult than the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, saying that her entire education has been built around taking MCAS tests.  “I felt I didn’t do half as well on the (PARCC) field test than I did on the MCAS,” said Russo.

Teaching and assessing the new standards requires cooperative effort for all involved. These sentiments capture a small segment of millions of students who took the assessment, however schools should pay close attention to student feedback and incorporate their evaluation into instructional design of lessons and best practices for the new school year.  With information from the field tests regarding how well test items performed, and thousands of surveys from educator and students; the consortiums will develop the operational assessments and procedures that will begin in the 2014-2015 school year.  The new assessments will serve as the foundation toward raising the bar of student expectations and achievement across the nation - I’d say a lesson well learned.