Washington students will take new Smarter Balanced tests this spring

First there was the WASL. Then came the MSP and HSPE.

This spring, for the first time, most Washington students will take a new state test, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

The new tests are designed to reflect more rigorous standards adopted by many states over the past few years, known as the Common Core State Standards. Both Common Core and Smarter Balanced tests represent a broad transformation for education.

Washington state adopted Common Core in 2011 with little fanfare, joining more than 40 other states. But in other parts of the country, the standards caused a huge political backlash; several states have either rescinded Common Core or are considering doing so.

Some critics of the Common Core see it as the product of federal pressure on states and an intrusion by the federal government, which offered states big incentives to get on board.

Q: How are new Smarter Balanced tests different from current and previous state tests?

A: The new tests are widely acknowledged by educators and test-makers alike to be more difficult, because they are tied to the more rigorous Common Core standards. Test-makers predict fewer students will be considered “proficient” on the new tests, at least at the outset.

Based on field testing of Smarter Balanced tests in 21 states last year, for example, it’s estimated that only about a third of students in most grade levels will demonstrate proficiency in math. Scores were somewhat better in English language arts, with nearly 40 percent of students in most grades reaching proficiency.

On last year’s traditional state tests, by comparison, between 70 percent and 83 percent of students were proficient in reading, and between 53 percent and 64 percent were proficient in math.

“The bar has been raised,” said Joe Willhoft, the recently retired director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and former Washington state testing director. “It’s not surprising that fewer students will score at Level 3 or higher.”

He predicts that scores will improve over time, just as they did with Washington’s first statewide test, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which was introduced in the 1990s.

Q: Why are Smarter Balanced tests considered better?

A: Willhoft believes the new tests will offer teachers more precise information about student performance than did previous tests.

Proponents say there also is the benefit of having consistent standards for all children in the U.S. — and being able to measure them.

Robin Munson, head of testing for Washington, said that until now every state has had a different test, so it was hard to make state-to-state comparisons.

“One of the beauties of the Smarter Balanced test is that we will be able to look across states that are teaching to common standards, that will be assessed in a common test,” she said.

Q: Will every student take the test on a computer?

A: Smarter Balanced tests are designed to be given online. Students might need to get used to online tools needed for the tests, and there are online training tools to help them do that.

While more than 90 percent of Washington students will test online this spring, a paper-and-pencil version of Smarter Balanced will be made available to districts that request it. Those districts also will pay an additional $6 per student for the privilege.

Q: Smarter Balanced is classified as a computer adaptive test. What does that mean?

A: It means the online test adjusts to a student’s ability level as he or she proceeds; it bases the difficulty of future questions on how students answered earlier ones.

Not every student will see the same test questions. Scores are based not just on the number of right or wrong answers, but on question difficulty. Harder items are weighted more heavily in the final score.

By adapting to the student during testing, the assessment identifies which skills students have mastered and which are lacking.

Q: Will teachers and students be able to practice Smarter Balanced testing ?

A: Before the tests are administered spring quarter, students might take several kinds of practice tests.

One version is a series of tests, called block tests, designed to gauge what students know about subsets of information. Those tests should be available this week, according to state officials. Another, already online, is a more comprehensive practice test that more closely resembles the real thing.

School districts decide whether and how often to administer the pretests.

Q: Are Smarter Balanced tests timed?

A: No. Students can take as much time as they need to complete them. They can pause the test and resume on another day. But they must review their answers before doing so, because they won’t be allowed to return to a previous day’s work and change answers.

Q: What subjects are covered by Smarter Balanced tests?

A: English language arts and math.

Both those tests will replace the Measurements of Student Progress in reading, writing and math for students in grades three through eight.

Eleventh-graders will take both Smarter Balanced tests to measure college and career readiness — the ultimate goal of the tests — but the new tests won’t apply to state graduation requirements for them.

The High School Proficiency Exams will be gradually phased out. (Go to to see graduation testing requirements listed by graduating class.)

Q: Besides Smarter Balanced, what other standardized tests will Washington students take this year?

A: Fifth- and eighth-graders will take MSP science tests. Tenth-graders will take biology end-of-course exams, which are graduation requirements for them.

Tenth-graders must also pass an end-of-course math exam to graduate, and they will take the Smarter Balanced tests in English language arts. That test will count as a graduation requirement for them, but a lower “cut score” will be used to grade them as proficient, since the test is actually aimed at students who are a grade level ahead of them. The State Board of Education will set that lower score over the summer, after spring testing is completed.

This year’s eighth-graders, the class of 2019, will be the first Washington students who must pass both Smarter Balanced tests as 11th-graders as part of graduation requirements.

Q: How many states are using Smarter Balanced tests this year?

A: Washington is one of 20 states.

Q: What does the federal government mandate on student testing?

A: Federal law requires annual reading and math tests for every child in grades three through eight. Students must also be tested in both subjects at least once during their high school years.

Q: Is there a proposal to remove state tests as a graduation requirement in Washington state?

A: Yes. Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, wants to make this change. He doesn’t oppose all standardized testing. But he says that with the introduction of Smarter Balanced tests, the current state system of tests tied to graduation has become too confusing and costly.

With the advent of Smarter Balanced tests this spring, required state tests will enter their third incarnation since the introduction of the WASL. Dorn believes now is a good time to hit the pause button and use the money saved from testing and re-testing students for graduation requirements to offer classes that can help them master what they need to learn.

The State Board of Education recently adopted a statement reaffirming its position that high school exit exams should play a part in how the state defines a meaningful high school diploma. Members emphasized, however, that the state should continue to develop alternative pathways for students who don’t test well and need other methods to demonstrate their learning.

Q: Will opting out of state tests hurt my child’s school?

A: Opt-out students are classified as “not meeting standard” in data that’s reported to the state, but individual student records will simply record “not tested.”

If fewer than 95 percent of the students in a school or district take the test, the school would be marked by federal standards as failing to make adequate yearly progress, based on participation rates. The rule is part of the current federal No Child Left Behind law.

Most schools in Washington state are already ranked as failing adequate yearly progress due to another portion of that law, which required 100 percent of students to pass the tests last spring.

The 95-percent rule is designed to keep schools from excluding low-performing students from testing in order to raise school averages.

If a subgroup of high-performing students opts out, it could bring down the average of the entire school.

Q: How much will Smarter Balanced testing cost the state?

A: The state will spend about $27 per student. That includes just less than $10 per student paid to the Smarter Balanced group and the remainder goes to a vendor, AIR, which will provide the online test engine and scoring services.

Together, it will add up to about $24 million this year. State officials estimate that the switch to Smarter Balanced will save about $6 million per year.

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