Friday, July 12, 2013

Amid criticism, Kansas preparing to test new reading and math assessments

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

Kansas education officials are gearing up to launch a new type of test for reading and math next spring that is being designed to go along with the new Common Core State Standards.

The process is moving forward even as some residents still are urging the Kansas State Board of Education to abandon the new standards, and all forms of testing that go along with them.

“I don't feel like our voices have been heard,” Lawrence resident Megan King told the state board Tuesday. “We have not been here complaining about the standards themselves, but about the nationalization that was tied to those standards and the loss of local control.”

King identified herself as a leader of a group called Kansans Against Common Core. For each of the past three monthly board meetings, members of that group, as well as other critics of the new standards, have lined up during the public comment portion of the agenda urging the board to bail out of the project.

So far, however, the state board has shown no willingness to reverse course on the new standards. And so now, opponents here are turning their attention to the new assessments that are still being developed.

Testing out the new tests

Kansas is working on the Common Core implementation with a group of 22 other states called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC. It's one of two consortiums that were awarded federal grants in 2010 to develop new tests that would go along with the Common Core standards.

Officials say the new tests will be different from what Kansas schools have used for many years. Previously, Kansas assessments have used multiple-choice tests, either in the form of paper-and-pencil tests in which students fill in ovals on an answer sheet or, more recently, on a computer-based platform that allows students to answer questions by clicking a mouse.

The new tests, however, will require students to do more. At some grade levels, there may be “technology-enhanced” items that require students to drag and drop items into their correct categories. Other items have writing prompts that require students to compose sentences to demonstrate their mastery of the material.

Examples of some of the new test questions have been made public in a practice test available on the SBAC website.

This past spring, SBAC ran a pilot test on some of those items, mixing them in with the traditional tests that were used by each of the member states. And this coming spring, SBAC will run a field test in which some students will be given a test entirely in the new format.

“We are confident that the districts are ready to go,” said Scott Smith, assistant director of assessments at the Kansas State Department of Education.

Like the pilot test this year, Smith said next year's pilot test will involve about 10 percent of Kansas students being assessed, or about 9,200 students overall in various grades. He said the test probably will involve a random sample of classrooms in selected districts that will mirror the demographic makeup of the state as a whole.

The other 90 percent of students will take a “transitional test” being developed by the Kansas University Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, the same group that has designed and administered all the other Kansas tests for about the past 30 years.

Costs and technical concerns

This year's pilot test caused headaches in other states, especially those that just started making the transition to a computer-based format.

Smith said the most high-profile example of that was in Indiana, where computer glitches made it impossible for about 30,000 students to complete their tests.

Incidents like that have provided fodder for critics of the Common Core standards to argue that it's time for Kansas to abort the project.

“The pilot testing this past spring victimized thousands of students who were unable to complete their tests,” one critic told the state board Tuesday. “How is this of benefit to these students, or the teachers or other educational professionals?”

Others also have argued that the new tests will add tremendous costs for states and local school districts to buy the computers, networking equipment, bandwidth and software needed to administer them.

But Kansas officials say there were no such glitches in the state during the pilot test, and they do not expect to see any significant increase in technology costs.

“That is one of the complaints that you hear and read about,” Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said. “But Kansas schools, because we have been doing computerized assessments for several years, our technology is ready to go.”

The state board still has not officially decided if it will use the Smarter Balanced test in future years. DeBacker said the state board will probably be asked to make that decision later this fall.