This spring, students all over Vermont are trying out a new standardized test that will measure their progress towards new academic standards called the Common Core. It’s the Smarter Balanced test, and it’s taken completely online. Schools are holding practice sessions so any bugs can be worked out.
In a homey white building perched on a knoll in rural South Strafford, Newton School has been busy testing the test.
Students in grades 3 through 8 at this school usually score very well on New England Common Assessment Program reading and math tests, but those NECAP tests will no longer be used. So Principal Greg Bagnato is a bit nervous about switching from pencils and paper to the new, probably tougher computer-based exam.
Maybe that’s why he spills coffee all over his office table before leaving for test practice.
"Nah, I do that a lot," he laughs.
Still, it's been a little hectic getting these practices started. With an IT consultant, Bagnato's had to make sure each laptop used for the exam is equipped with a secure connection to the test site. There's new software to close Internet browsers, so kids don't Google for answers. Students have to follow complex instructions perfectly to log in.
“So all of that stuff kind of ... gets kids in an emotional way before they even start the test. So I think one of the biggest challenges is having a testing experience in which the kids aren’t worried about logging in and getting the right screens,” Bagnato says.
He strolls down a noisy hallway to get the headphones and computers he will need to give the practice test to about 15 sixth graders, saying hello to each student he sees by name.
Inside a classroom, he passes out all the hardware and gets things rolling.
“Okay, next thing, is, when you guys do this test for real, you’re going to put your information in, right there. It’s really different from the paper one, the NECAP you did last year,” he tells the test takers, passing out slips of paper with each student’s name on it.
"If it’s not spelled quite right, type it in that way anyway. Not all computers can spell as well as you can,” he quips.
The kids start logging in with their names. Some mis-copy the password from the blackboard. And a few are frustrated when their laptops stubbornly hang onto Internet browsers they are not supposed to have, even though they’ve tried to close them. All told, it takes about 20 minutes for the screen of questions to open. At that point, each student's computer asks Bagnato's computer to allow the exam to begin, and he has to click his approval.
Fingers fly. A wall clock ticks.
Bagnato glances at his laptop screen showing the progress of each test taker, in real time.
“And then,” he whispers, “you can kind of see how many questions they're kind of going through. One good thing about this test is you can stop it, and then start up later…and there's no time limit, so they can continue it, stop it, start it, start after lunch, whatever they need to do. So it's more flexible, for sure.”
The Smarter Balanced test poses different questions to different students, based on their previous answers, so that each child is measured at the highest possible level of accomplishment. Many answers, except for writing samples, are automatically scored as the test progresses.
At the end of the practice session, with teacher Diane White looking on, Principal Bagnato asks everyone who liked taking the test on a computer to raise their hands.
About five out of 15 go up.
“What else is different?” he asks.
“Well, it has longer things to read, longer passages, then there’s more questions about it,” one girl answers.
“You mean compared to the NECAP?” asks teacher White.
“Do people agree there are longer things to read?” Bagnato inquires.
“YEAH,” the class answers loudly.
“Personally, comparing it to the NECAP,” one student adds, “I think it’s a little bit harder to do on the computer 'cause there’s more things going on at once, and too much crammed into one little space.”
“OK, close your browser,” Bagnato says, and asks a student to return the headphones to their storage place.
As the kids head to another class, Bagnato decides this practice went pretty well, given the number of things that could have gone wrong. He hopes sessions like this will cut down on the stress young test takers feel when they have to log in for real later this term. But the results will not be used to measure schools themselves this year, because older students may not have had enough exposure to the new Common Core curriculum to be able to answer questions aligned to it.