Schools Learn from Pilot Test

Children love to play the game “let's pretend” and that's exactly what the 3rd-grade class at Grandview Elementary School was asked to do last week when they pretended to take a test using the new Smarter Balanced assessment system.

The 18 students from Kristy Miller's 3rd-grade class seemed to be enjoying themselves when they gathered in the school's computer lab to take the test, focusing on English-language arts. The test was not for credit, but only to see how well the test functioned.

Grandview Elementary School was one of 1,000 schools in California selected to take the Smarter Balanced scientific sample pilot test, and the only Rim of the World Unified School District site selected to participate in the test. More than one million students are taking the pilot test.

Participating in the pilot test, along with their students, were 3rd-grade teachers Kristy Miller, Laurie Johnson and Diane Bruns, and 4th-grade teachers Kathy Flores and Karen Gadberry.

It also was a test of Grandview's computers, operating systems, Internet connectivity and bandwidth to see if the new Smarter Balanced assessment system would run on Rim of the World Unified School District's computer infrastructure.

The Smarter Balanced assessment system is a key component of the move toward Common Core State Standards that California will be using for English and math instruction starting in the 2014-15 school year.

Smarter Balanced is based around computer adaptive testing, meaning the software-testing program adjusts the difficulty of the questions being given to each student.

A student who answers a question correctly would then next receive a more challenging question. If the student answered incorrectly, the next question would be an easier one. The idea is to eventually determine which skills the student has mastered, and what still needs to be learned.

Students traditionally have taken pencil and paper bubble tests, meaning they fill in the bubble next to the answer they deem is correct.

For Grandview's 3rd-graders, mostly 8-year-olds, the smarter Balanced Pilot Test required a computer, a keyboard, a headset, and a connection to the Internet.

Rather than use a commercially available browser, such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, Smarter Balanced assessments use a proprietary web browser. It connects students and teachers directly to the Smarter Balanced system. Each student is assigned a number for the test, logs in, and the teacher then must approve on their computer that the student can take the test.

Some of the questions involved reading a story, then answering a series of questions.

One story this reporter saw was called “Treasure in the Attic,” and was based on a young girl helping her grandmother go through family items in the attic, one of which was an old manual typewriter that had been used by the grandfather. The story included an image of a typewriter and described its function.

The student was then asked to read a series of sentences about the story, putting them in correct sequence by clicking and dragging on the answers. Next, the student was asked to answer the question, “why was the young girl in the story happy to keep the typewriter?”

Using the Internet, each student's scores go directly to the Smarter Balanced assessment system, where results are recorded and the data can be used for a variety of purposes.

The developers of the Smarter Balanced system say that it “offers teachers and schools a more accurate way to evaluate student achievement, readiness for college and careers, and to measure growth over time.”

According to the website, “The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced) is a state-led consortium working to develop next-generation assessments that accurately measure student progress toward college- and career-readiness. Smarter Balanced is one of two multi-state consortia awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to develop an assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by the 2014-15 school year.”

For the 18 students from Miller’s class taking the test, all of them seemed attentive and involved in answering the questions. None of them seemed bored or distracted.

Grandview's computers and wireless connectivity also got a good workout. The equipment and Internet connection seemed able to handle the load during the tests. But the school district is looking over the next few years to make a major investment in new computer equipment and increasing bandwidth.

During the pilot test, two students had problems with answering the questions. In both cases they each couldn't move past a certain number of questions.

Ryan Beck, a computer technician with the district, and Laurie Fischer, who was helping with the testing, had to make several calls to the Smarter Balanced administrators to see if they could answer why the two students were having problems.

The two students were asked to log out, then log back in; logging out and waiting five minutes before logging back in; moving to different computers and logging in, but still nothing.

The problem apparently was unique to the two student users.

“What we're doing here really is troubleshooting for Smarter Balanced,” said Beck. “They're using (the pilot testing) to get the bugs out.”

Grandview Principal Cheri Singer said, overall, the pilot testing went well.

“It was a very worthwhile experience because it showed that our technology will be able to handle the requirements of the (Smarter Balanced) test, and it also showed us where we are going to need to work on the computer skills we're going to need to give to our children to be successful.”