Smarter Balanced Field Test Shows Positive Tech Results

Technology ran smoothly for many school districts in a Common Core field test.

by / June 11, 2014 0

A field test of the Smarter Balanced assessment this spring showed good results when it came to state and school district's technology preparedness. 

Twenty-one governing states and the Virgin Islands participated in the Smarter Balanced field test that ran from March 25 to June 6, and five of them tested most or all of their students: California, Connecticut, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota. While Idaho had been using online testing as part of its accountability program, the other four states were transitioning from paper and pencil to computer-based tests. And while they did hit a few speed bumps, everything went extremely well, said Joe Willhoft, Smarter Balanced executive director.

By the end of May, 4.2 million students completed English and math assessments in third- through eighth-grade and eleventh-grade. While the results of the test will not be released, the consortium is analyzing them to make sure the test items are fair, valid and reliable. 

This was really a test of the exam, bandwidth and school procedures. With 16,549 schools participating, the consortium's highest number of simultaneous users was about 184,000, and the consortium had enough capacity to handle them.

In California alone, about 97 percent of students completed the test, totaling 3.1 million.

"This is a testament to our schools and teachers and students who really took this very seriously and made it a real priority to get this done," said Deborah Sigman, deputy superintendent of public instruction in the California Department of Education. 

Overall, California received mostly positive feedback from 320 district test coordinators that responded to surveys throughout the testing window. The state also plans to work on a few areas for next year based on feedback: Just over half of coordinators wanted more staff training on the testing system, and nearly two-thirds asked for more practice test opportunities. 

In the survey, the majority of coordinators said their testing devices and the Internet worked as expected or better than expected. The biggest headache was password resets. About a third of coordinators said they needed increased network capacity and better Internet service, while 44 percent needed more or newer testing devices.

"The field test is about finding those headaches, if you will, finding those glitches, to make sure that we've got smooth sailing for next year," Willhoft said.

On the technology side of things, a significant state investment of $1.25 billion from the state superintendent, legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown helped schools prepare for the Common Core State Standards and assessments implementation. At the state level, the department reallocated resources to boost support at the help desk level with an assessment contractor and on the ground level with physical site visits.

In San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento, the district helped each school prepare for the assessment and made sure they had the technology they needed. They brought in computers on wheels, and that helped the district test all the students seamlessly, said Kirsten Thomas-Acke, vice principal of Howe Avenue Elementary School. The district also created a learning forum community for test coordinators and teachers within the district so they could look at test manuals, watch videos of how to log on and check out other resources.

In West Virginia, the state supported administrators with the tools that Smarter Balanced provided, including sending out relevant information from the thick manuals, providing step-by-step guidelines and directing people to the resources, said Juan D'Brot, executive director of the Office of Assessment and Accountability in the West Virginia Department of Education.

The support from the state level was fantastic, and the technical components worked well, said Diane Cormack, library media and integration specialist at Norwood Elementary School in Stonewood, W.Va. 

"Our technology was seamless; we had absolutely no issues with technology," Cormack said. 

The field test clarified what teachers needed to do differently in the classroom as they prepare students for the Common Core tests, both Cormack and Thomas-Acke said. And the test engaged and intrigued students. Some of them even said it was fun!

One student told Thomas-Acke,"It's really the first time that people have asked what I think" on a test. And that shows students that their voices are being heard. 

During this field test, Smarter Balanced learned a number of lessons. The consortium has an open-source test delivery platform that they're developing, and it had a few glitches because of the volume of testing. They'll be working on those glitches, and at the end of the year will release the platform to states to use with their testing providers.

The test administration manual was too dense, overly detailed and text-heavy in some places, so they'll be revising it so states can have it before the beginning of the next school year. And some test directions to students also need to be improved and made clearer, especially for students who are learning English.

Between now and September, the consortium will give teachers a preview of a digital library with more than 500 Common Core and assessment resources. They'll be able to rate and discuss each resource. 

Then in October and November, an online panel of up to 250,000 educators and an in-person workshop panel of 500 people will make achievement level recommendations to figure out how well students in each grade have to do on the test in order to achieve a certain level.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.