ST. ALBANS — Monday night St. Albans City officials and other community members got a taste of what the state’s children will experience next month as students take the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exams.
City council member Tammi DiFranco took the 11th grade math test, which her son will take this year. “He’s going to come home and his brain is going to be fried,” she said afterward. The test, she said, “was all over the place,” in terms of the skills required.
“After these tests take your kids out to dinner and a movie,” said DiFranco’s husband, Brian.
After taking the eighth grade math test, Mayor Liz Gamache said, “I certainly have a lot more empathy for my kids now.”
The SBAC tests how well students meet the new Common Core standards adopted by Vermont and other states. The SBAC will replace the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP)
The questions on the SBAC are more complex and designed to get at students’ ability to reason, rather than simply gauging their understanding of concepts.
For example, the fifth grade math exam seeks to gauge students’ ability to use a grid to plot points. There were six points plotted, but instead of simply having to give the coordinates for the points, students were given a word problem in which each point represented a place in the town where Susie lives. Her home is labeled. The other locations are not, and students had to determine where other places such as the park, library and store were from written clues like “the park is six blocks from the library.”
Another question involved a truck loaded with boxes, the weight of the truck and the weight of each box. Students were asked the minimum number of boxes the driver would have to deliver before he could cross a bridge within a set weight limit. Test takers were given no clues about how to solve the problem, only the information needed to do so.
“It’s a good set of expectations we have for kids,” said St. Albans City School Principal Joan Cavallo. “It’s a wonderful set of standards.”
It’s also a rigorous set of standards.
Students in fifth grade, for example, not only need to perform a wide range of calculations, such as multiplication and division with fractions, they need to understand how multiplication and division work. Knowing how to perform the calculations isn’t enough. Students must grasp the underlying concepts and be able to apply them.
“It’s a whole different way of teaching where students need to be able to analyze and think,” said Franklin Central Superintendent Kevin Dirth.
The SBAC questions are intended to be open ended. For example, when asked to divide two numbers, students aren’t given multiple answers from which to choose, but must enter the answer into a box on the screen. In the math section, the multiple-choice questions often had multiple correct answers and students are asked to find all of them.
Students also are asked to create equations to find the answer. In a third grade question, they’re told Jane has $60 to spend on plants and has purchased a plum tree for $19 and a peach tree for $23, the students then have to create the equation for determining how much money Jane has left to spend.
The English exam has students read passages and then answer a series of questions identifying the central theme in fiction and the key idea in non-fiction. They are also asked to identify which specific sentences supported their interpretation of the passage.
Other questions asked about the meaning of particular words or phrases in context, or had students identify grammatical errors. Each reading passage also had a question to which students had to write a paragraph or two in answer.
For one passage, students must listen to it read to them without the written text.
The structure of the reading exams was the same for all grade levels. Third to eighth graders and eleventh graders will take the tests.
On the third grade test students have to read a short story about a girl who saves a bird’s nest and are asked about the theme of the piece, as well as such questions as what the dialog contributes to the story.
The tests are computerized and students often have to drag items across the screen to answer questions. They also may be required to use a drawing tool.
Brian DiFranco felt the test would be “hard for anybody with a second language or a learning disability.”
Gamache added, “I didn’t understand some of the language in the math questions.” The math questions often use language specific to math or words whose meaning is slightly different in math, such as “transform.”
There is a text-to-speech option for students but it “sounds like a robot so it’s not very helpful,” said Cavallo.
Alisha Sawyer felt the computerized nature of the test meant students may be able to finish it faster, while Chip Sawyer observed that the use of technology allows students to answer questions in new ways.
One feature of the computerized tests – the ability to adapt to students’ ability levels – wasn’t part of the practice tests adults took last night. When students take the full test, the test will theoretically adapt to the student, adjusting the difficulty level based on the student’s answers. Correct answers will result in harder questions while wrong answers will lead to easier questions.
In response to a question from Tammi DiFranco, Cavallo said city school has been working with the Common Core standards for two years. If they hadn’t been, students would not be prepared for the math tests, said Cavallo.
While students may be familiar with the content, the complexity of the questions will likely pose a challenge, in Cavallo’s estimation.
Another challenge will be the sheer amount of directions attached to each question, as well as the directions for taking the test itself. “Kids don’t usually read directions,” said Cavallo. “The brighter they are the less they read the details.”
There was general agreement that the amount of concentration required to complete the test might be a challenge for students, with Alisha Sawyer adding she found it easy to get distracted during the section of the language test during which the passage is read to the test taker.
One advantage of the computerized tests is that students will be allowed to pause the test and take a break. There is no time limit, so students can even take more than one day to finish.
The adult test takers did not take the performance task, one of which is part of each test. Jesse Byers, director of Curriculum for Franklin Central, said she took the 11th grade math performance test, which required students to analyze how traffic fines were calculated in two states. Then using data from a graph they created, the students were asked to make a case for the state they believed had the fairest approach to fines.
The English performance task had students read multiple texts and write an essay drawing on information in the texts.
States that have switched to the SBAC from state-developed assessments, even states with rigorous standards such as New York, have seen a drop in student scores. A similar drop is expected in Vermont.
Dirth urged parents and the community to “Remember this is one test.”
“This is not the be all, end all of assessments,” he said.
Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe has made similar statements. In a memo to the state’s schools, she reminded teachers and administrators the SBAC is “one data point.”
Holcombe asked Vermont’s educators to work with her on three goals: keeping the test in perspective, communicating responsibly about the test, and not letting high stakes testing “undermine and distort our strong Vermont commitment to ensuring that all students have rich, broad, high-quality opportunities to learn.”
The state Board of Education announced last week that it will not be using the results of this year’s SBAC to evaluate schools. In a written statement, board chair Stephan Morse noted that while standardized tests can be useful, “there are real limitations of what can be concluded about learning based on test scores, particularly in the first years of new tests and standards.”
He also noted that not all students or schools have had equal access to technology or an equal opportunity to become familiar with computerized testing.