Education

The new state tests: How will Washington students measure up?

As Washington students this spring begin taking new tests based on Common Core math and language arts standards, some parents worry their kids won’t measure up to the tougher learning goals.

“We are hearing from parents that they are concerned their child will be labeled as failing,” said Sherry Krainick, legislative director of the Washington State Parent Teacher Association.

She said PTA is telling concerned parents it could take several years for some students to reach proficiency.

Educators say the old standards required only basic skills, while Common Core aims for the higher ground students will need as they head to college or post-high school careers.

It might be hard to persuade some families that the long-term gain will be worth the short-term pain. But state education officials and their allies in the PTA are trying.

Krainick was part of an education panel last week that touted the advantages of the new standards and the tests that measure them, known as Smarter Balanced tests.

“Washington is no stranger to learning standards,” explained panel member Jessica Vavrus, an assistant superintendent for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We have had them for 20 years.”

But Common Core standards are different, she said. They “go deeper, into fewer topics.”

Some families aren’t buying it. And some parents — state officials claim a tiny minority — have pulled their children out of the testing altogether, saying both the standards and the tests are flawed.

Mike Leuzzi, a South Hill parent who formed a 300-member group called Pierce-Thurston Common Core Concerned Citizens, decided his two children won’t take the new tests.

“They are not going to give me any more information than I already know,” he said, noting that his oldest, in junior high school, is an honor roll student.

He calls Common Core “the latest form of federal control masquerading as education reform.”

The federal government didn’t directly develop Common Core standards; they were created at the behest of two organizations, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But strong federal incentives led most states to adopt the standards, which Washington did in 2011.

COMPUTER-ADAPTIVE TESTS

Testing will continue through the end of the school year, with schedules determined by school districts. High school students will test during the final seven weeks of the school year.

But state officials say that, because the tests are online, results are expected sooner than under the old testing system. They expect to be able to report statewide results in July.

So far this spring, state officials say, Washington kids have completed more than 50,000 segments of the multi-part Smarter Balanced tests. By the end of the school year, an estimated 2.5 million test segments are expected to be completed by students in grades three through eight, and by 10th- and 11th-graders.

Smarter Balanced uses a concept known as computer-adaptive testing. The level of difficulty of each question is determined by how well the student answers the previous question. Not every student will see the same set of questions, and scores are based not only on right or wrong answers, but on the level of question difficulty.

Supporters say the adaptive nature of the tests will more readily identify which skills students have mastered. But critics say it smacks of predetermination.

“If you stumble out of the gate, it will be harder to get a proficient score,” Leuzzi said.

‘BECOMING DETECTIVES’

Opposition to the standards and tests runs the political gamut. Conservatives cite federal intrusion into state policies, while liberals dislike the corporate flavor of big interests such as the Gates Foundation, which helped pay for the development of Common Core.

Supporters claim Common Core and Smarter Balanced tests might mean heavy lifting and relatively lower test scores at the outset, but that the new system eventually will produce students who are better prepared for college and the global economy.

Educators who back the standards say they will give more students throughout the state an equal opportunity to succeed, no matter their economic background. They say that’s important in a state like Washington, where the achievement gap between white and minority students is widening. And they point out that more than half of recent high school graduates have needed to take remedial math or language arts classes in college.

Raising the level of learning in kindergarten through high school can help alleviate that problem, they say.

Hallie Mills, a fourth-grade teacher from Kent, said students are now required to answer not only the “what” but also the “why.”

“My slogan is, ‘Show me the evidence,’ ” she said. “We are becoming detectives.”

Pushing for “why” has helped change the focus for students at Bonney Lake High School, said Emily Wojciechowicz, an English teacher at the school.

“Being able to read, write and say that ‘why’ is what drives them to read deeper,” she said. “It has helped us push literacy across the building.”

Common Core language arts standards emphasize more nonfiction reading — a key component that has drawn both praise and criticism from educators. Some fear that schools will have to drop great works of literature. But supporters say the goal is not to muscle Shakespeare out of English class, but to require more reading and writing in other disciplines including science, art and social studies.

In math, instead of waiting until third or fourth grade to ask children to memorize multiplication tables, teachers set the stage in second grade by teaching concepts such as number groupings.

“Many of us learned algorithms, but we didn’t understand the meaning behind the mathematics,” said Eatonville School District Superintendent Krestin Bahr. Now, she said, she has sixth-graders in her district who can explain algebraic concepts like quadratic equations..

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES?

The new online tests require students to have a degree of computer literacy that wasn’t necessary for the old state tests, which used paper and pencil.

On the Smarter Balanced, students might be asked to click on more than one right answer, or they might be asked to highlight passages from a text to support their answers. They need to learn to navigate split screens on the computer for some reading passages.

One Pierce County teacher, who asked not to be named, describes the test screens as “cumbersome.”

There have been some reported problems. A few Pierce County schools reported that the wrong tests were accidentally loaded into computers. Some students have been disconnected from the system midtest and had to start over.

Some teachers worry that Smarter Balanced tests will monopolize their school’s limited computer resources.

The Pierce County teacher said testing sessions at his school mean that school computer labs, and the school library where computers are used for testing, will be shut down for part of each day throughout the testing period, which runs through May.

But Bahr said her small district in Eatonville was able to buy an adequate supply of cheaper devices such as Chromebooks that are working fine.

“I don’t see it being a barrier like it would have been 15 years ago,” she said.

Several teachers said practice tests have allowed their students to get comfortable with the testing technology.

“Students are more adaptable than we are,” said Mills. “I don’t think they’re worried about the technology at all.”

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