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Common Core passes field test — with a few snags

Technology, test questions and scheduling challenged some schools
The first day of practice testing at Greer Elementary School in the San Juan USD in California in March.
The first day of practice testing at Greer Elementary School in the San Juan USD in California in March.

Field testing for the Common Core assessments wrapped up in June, with districts in 36 states reporting mostly successful first runs despite some challenges around technology, test questions and scheduling.

Some four million students in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) participated in the trial run. Most field tests last 2.5 to 4.5 hours, depending on subject and grade level. The actual tests will take between 7.5 and 10 hours, spread out over two weeks.

At Coeur d’Alene School District 271 in northern Idaho, the testing was difficult to schedule because it was held in the media center and prevented other students from using the room, says Michael Nelson, director of curriculum and assessment at the district of 10,300 students. The district is considering adding mobile computer labs outside the building to increase testing space.

Some students also struggled with technical skills, such as using a drag-and-drop tool and rotating objects with a mouse. “The big thing for us is the students get the opportunity to take the practice test so they can use those skills before the real tests,” Nelson says.

Student focus groups reported that the assessments were more difficult than previous state exams, Nelson adds. But students also said they enjoyed the interactive elements of the tests and the performance-based questions that require the analysis of real-world situations.

In rural Jefferson County Schools in east Tennessee, administrators realized prior to the field tests that students did not have the typing skills needed for online assessments, says instructional technology specialist Sally Musick-Meredith.

Teaching the standards

The Common Core assessments are meant to measure deeper learning skills, such as analysis and argumentation, says Jacqueline King, spokesperson for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

For example, one test question for juniors has the student act as an aide to a legislator who is voting on a nuclear energy bill. The student must evaluate different source materials to write a memo to the legislator, with recommendations on how to vote.

Beginning this school year, students began learning keyboarding and computer skills as early as kindergarten to prepare for both the tests and the increased use of technology. “We have to look much broader than the test,” Musick-Meredith says. “It’s a test we’re participating in, but their life is digital.”

Overall, the field tests went “very well,” says Jacqueline King, spokesperson for Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Many people expected bandwidth problems, but few issues arose—likely because schools scheduled tests so not all students were online at the same time. At just 20 kilobytes per student, the tests also have a very small bandwidth requirement—less than the size of an average email, King says.

The field tests are a crucial part of the test development process, King says. “You have lots of adults looking at these tests, but you never know how well the questions are going to perform until you get them in front of the kids,” she adds. She estimates between 10 and 20 percent of questions will be revised or deleted as a result of a field test.

In most states, the testing will begin in spring 2015. The tests are expected to be widely used for student, teacher and school evaluation in the following years.

Opting out

As of early May, Indiana is the only state to drop the Common Core standards completely. But some states, including Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania, have opted out of the consortia testing and are developing their own assessments.

PARCC covers 23 states and the District of Columbia and 25 million students, while Smarter Balanced comprises 27 states and 21 million students. The consortia received $360 million in federal grants to create the assessments.

Teachers have complained they have not been given enough material or guidance to teach the new standards, according to the Associated Press.

Teachers from 31 New York City schools protested against the new Common Core assessments in early April, and an estimated 30,000 students opted out of the exams statewide. New York State Education Commissioner John King Jr. said in a speech that the state is still committed to teaching the standards.