Last spring’s practice run of a new statewide exam has shown that Montana schools are ready to test students online, state K-12 education officials say.
Districts reported fewer glitches than anticipated in transitioning to the computer-based Smarter Balanced exam, but many expressed concern that its questions, which measure proficiency in the Common Core, were too difficult for students.
More than 80 percent of districts are well-equipped to handle the exam, a report released this summer by the Montana Educational Technologists Association found, and only four of the 324 districts surveyed will need to make major infrastructure changes for 2015.
The state Office of Public Instruction contracted with META to aid and assess schools’ preparedness for the exam.
Around 70,000 students in third through eighth and 11th grade took the Smarter Balanced field test last spring, shedding the existing standardized exam known as the Criterion-Referenced Test (CRT).
Montana was the first of a handful of states to receive permission from the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a “test of the test” in all its schools without also giving the old exam. The scores didn’t count, but the exercise gave districts more time to prepare for official implementation in 2015.
The state had expected small, remote schools would face the most challenges, and school leaders were unsure if the equipment they had — and the test itself — would run smoothly.
State superintendent of public instruction Denise Juneau said she was pleased with how the test was rolled out.
“There was a lot of angst around it, and I think it was diminished,” she said. “It proved our schools are ready.”
Schools did report scheduling headaches or said that the test, which is untimed, was too long or took away from too much classroom instruction. Math and reading sections are expected to take between two-and-a-half and four hours each to complete.
Some districts purchased additional computers and upgraded bandwidth in the run-up to the field test, the report noted. Still, most had to ration computers, and in some cases bandwidth, for test-taking, which made scheduling more complicated than for paper-and-pencil exams.
“The only way to resolve those issues is to have additional devices available for testing,” the META report concluded.
Though not a surprise, the most frequent response from districts was that the Smarter Balanced questions were too hard or confusing for students.
The questions are interactive, and many require students to type out an explanation for their answer, rather than simply select from a few choices. Unlike the field test, the final version will be adaptive, meaning the difficulty of each question will adjust based on the student’s response to the previous one in order to more closely measure what he or she knows.
“Just from my observation, it is very rigorous, but so are our new standards,” Juneau said. “It is a really good measure of how students are learning, of their ability to critically think about the content they are obtaining in the classroom.”
Smarter Balanced is being developed by a group of 21 states as part of the next generation of standardized tests that are aligned with Common Core. Representatives from the consortium will soon analyze field test data from around the country and refine questions accordingly. Montana educators will be at that table, Juneau said.
Meanwhile, without CRT results there won’t be any statewide student test scores from last academic year, and Juneau indicated that OPI plans to treat results from the inaugural Smarter Balanced assessment next spring as a “new baseline.”
“Our big push this year is to remember this is a brand new assessment,” she said.
Montana is one of several states which has not sought a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, which this year requires that 100 percent of students score proficient or higher on their state exam. As part of the state’s testing agreement for Smarter Balanced, the performance status of each Montana school is being rolled over from 2012-13.
Juneau said the NCLB benchmarks have become irrelevant and said she’ll be looking to the U.S. Department of Education to issue new guidance for non-waiver states.
Until then, the state will track other measures like graduation rates and implementation of Common Core to gauge how well schools are performing and direct aid to those that struggle, she said.