200,000 students will take new test starting this week

The state’s new standardized tests in math and language arts are being put to the test starting this week.

Between now and early June, roughly 200,000 students in Washington will take trial versions of the new online assessments that are based on the Common Core State Standards. That’s about one-fifth of the total number of students in the state, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

More than 650 schools in Washington will administer the Smarter Balanced field tests, according to OSPI data. While more than 35 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 will take the field tests this year, a smaller share of high school students will participate.

The new tests are part of a multi-state effort to develop common education goals — the Common Core standards — as well as assessments that can be used to compare schools and students across different states.

The Smarter Balanced assessments won’t be administered statewide in Washington until spring 2015. But many schools in Washington and throughout the nation are administering preliminary versions of the tests now to help a multi-state consortium get the tests ready for widespread use next year.

The field-testing process is scheduled to last through June 6, with different schools and grade levels taking the tests at different times. Only districts and schools that volunteered to be part of the process are administering the field tests.

Some school district officials said they welcomed the chance to participate in the field tests this year because they think it will help their teachers and students perform better on the Smarter Balanced tests in 2015, when the scores will be tallied and reported.

“Field testing gives us that chance when it’s not necessarily the high-stakes environment to make sure our schools and our students are ready for this,” said Brian Fox, spokesman for the Puyallup School District.

Other school districts — including Tacoma Public Schools — opted not to participate in the field-testing this year.

Pat Cummings, director of research and evaluation for Tacoma Public Schools, said Tacoma wanted its students to take the regular state tests this year so the district could get results back and gauge how well students are doing.

“We just couldn’t justify diverting that much instruction time for a test where you’re just doing it to do it,” Cummings said.

A student taking field tests in both math and language arts can expect to spend about seven to eight hours testing, which most school districts are spreading over multiple days.

The students’ scores on the field tests won’t be reported to school districts or to parents.

Instead, data from the field tests will be used to help the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – which is governed by education officials from 22 states, including Washington — determine the difficulty of the test questions.

In the future, that information will help the computer-based tests react to a student’s performance on the exam, and choose harder or easier questions based on how a student is doing, said Robin Munson, OSPI’s assistant superintendent of assessment and student information.

Munson said computer-adaptive tests like the Smarter Balanced assessments measure a student’s ability more accurately than the fixed-format tests the state administers now.

“For a student who sails through a test, items will begin to get more challenging to figure out where a student’s true performance is,” Munson said.

Another goal of the field testing is to ensure the online testing system works as expected, Munson said.

About half of school districts statewide have at least some schools that are administering the Smarter Balanced field tests, according to OSPI data.

That includes districts in Olympia, Tumwater, Puyallup, Gig Harbor, Sumner and Eatonville, as well as the Bethel, Franklin-Pierce and Clover Park school districts.

Any students in grades 3 through 8 who take the field tests will be excused from taking the state-mandated Measurements of Student Progress tests in math, writing and reading later this spring, said OSPI spokeswoman Kristen Jaudon.

But high school students who take the field tests this year still must take the end-of-course assessments and high-school proficiency exams they need to graduate, Jaudon said.

Eventually, the MSP tests and the current high-school math, reading and writing exams will go away, and students throughout the state will be required to take the Smarter Balanced tests in math and language arts instead.

While schools in Washington will start phasing in the new tests next year, the first students who will be required to take the Smarter Balanced tests to graduate from high school are today’s seventh-graders — the class of 2019.

Jessica Vavrus, OSPI’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the idea behind Common Core is “moving away from racing through topics” in school and focusing more on in-depth problem solving and reading comprehension skills.

“It’s grounded in what skills and abilities kids need to have to be ready for careers and college,” Vavrus said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209