EVERETT — One night in February, about 20 people gathered in the library at Whittier Elementary School. A school official had them take a test.
These were not students, but parents, and the school official was Everett Public Schools director of curriculum and assessment Catherine Matthews.
The test was the SBA, or Smarter Balanced Assessment, a multi-grade testing regimen which is replacing older tests required for eventual high school graduation. SBA was developed by a consortium of states around the country, including Washington, to comply with new federal education standards called Common Core.
This school year, Everett jumped head-first into the new testing ecosystem. The district spent $1.7 million on 3,400 Google Chromebooks, fast-tracking the purchase to ensure the technology would be installed in every school by last September.
The purchase included three-year warranties on the equipment, device management software and rolling carts that allow the laptops to be shared among all of the district’s 19,000-plus students.
Teachers have been using the laptops not just to prepare students for the SBA tests but also in regular lessons.
One goal is that by the time the tests are offered, students will be comfortable with the online platform. Another goal is to get kids better prepared for college and careers in the 21st century.
“Nobody hands children worksheets when they turn 20 and have a job,” Matthews said.
The Everett Public Schools, one of Snohomish County’s largest districts, begins administering SBA tests on April 14, with third- and sixth-graders taking the English Language Arts test. Other districts have already begun SBA testing.
At Whittier that night in February, Matthews led parents through sample questions on Google Chromebooks, demonstrating the various online tools. It was one of many workshops Matthews held for parents to familiarize them with the tests their children will take.
Parent, teacher training
For one math problem, a calculator popped up on the screen. “This is not a calculator,” Matthews explained. It was a tool students could use to enter fractions.
She let the parents tackle each question for a minute before providing the answer, sometimes prompting nervous laughter from flummoxed adults.
“I’m glad I came up here, because now I can see what the students are going to do,” said Debbie Ritchie, the parent of a third-grader, after the session with Matthews.
Referring to her own atrophied math skills, she added, “And I’m glad I’m not taking the test either!”
Matthews has conducted dozens of similar sessions with parents, teachers and other district staffers, demonstrating the practice tests for teachers in so many classrooms she lost count. (A practice test to familiarize people with the format and tools is offered online at smarterbalanced.org/practice-test.)
She and the team devoted to rolling out the SBA have met weekly since March 2014 to make the transition to new tests and technology as smooth as possible.
One of the key differences between the SBA and its predecessor is that it is what is known as an “adaptive” test. That means the test will present different questions depending on how well the student is performing. A student who misses a few higher-level math questions would be offered a few more at a slightly lower level, and likewise a student finding a test easy will be given some harder questions.
The result is a more nuanced view of a student’s progress through the curriculum.
One purpose of the SBA is to provide a new graduation standard, a minimum score each 11th-grader will have to achieve to receive a diploma the next year.
It’s among requirements imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which also holds states responsible and penalizes those that don’t improve graduation rates.
The SBA is replacing the High School Proficiency Exam for English and end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology.
The SBA is being offered in math and English to every Washington student in third through eighth grades.
High school juniors are also taking the exam, although for the next two years those 11th graders will also take the older tests. Either battery of tests can be used to meet the graduation requirement.
By the time current eighth-graders are in 11th grade, the SBA will be the only exam offered for English and math.
The SBA is considered to be a more rigorous test than older tests, and state officials worried that fewer students would meet graduation requirements if the switch was done all at once.
The solution was a gradual phasing in of new standards over three years. Ben Rarick, the executive director of the state Board of Education, told journalists last week that the board will determine in August what the graduation threshold will be, based on a comparison with results from the previous year’s tests under the old format.
“We’re not setting a new standard for high school students but trying to continue the old standard for (the) transitional period,” Rarick said.
The state will grade on a curve: the percentage of students meeting the state standard for graduation will be the same under new testing.
Robin Munson, the state assistant superintendent of assessment and student information, said setting the graduation standard this way ensures that the change will not punish students for not adjusting to the new format quickly.
“Essentially what the state board is going for is an equal impact, and not wanting 10th-, 11th-, 12th-graders caught with a more rigorous test without having the benefit of a few years with the new learning standard,” Munson said.
That will change with the class of 2019, which will be held to a higher standard under the new tests.
Another purpose of the SBA is to allow students entering college to receive placement in classes at an appropriate level. The measure is known as the “college and career-readiness” standard.
Final scores from the 11th grade SBA will determine what level of math or English students will take their first year at almost all colleges in Washington.
This is by agreement among the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, all public universities, community and technical colleges, and most private colleges in the state, said Bill Moore, the executive director for the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
“If you score in Level 4, you have a pretty wide range of courses open to you,” Moore said.
Students scoring in Level 2 have to take a catch-up class in the 12th grade to be considered college-ready.
Students scoring in Level 1, or those who don’t take the catch-up class their senior year, will find themselves assigned to remedial English or math classes in college.
According to the Education Research and Data Center, there were 27,747 Washington high school graduates enrolled in state community or technical colleges in the 2011-12 school year, the most recent for which data was available.
Nearly half of them, 13,596 students, took a remedial math or English class, and 17 percent (4,717 students) had to take both math and English at the remedial level.
That data probably underestimates the number of students needing remedial courses, Moore said, because they only reflect those students who actually enrolled in remedial classes, not all who need them.
This is less a problem at the six four-year public universities. The data from 2013-14 show that only about 1,025 students from Washington high schools, less than 1 percent of total enrollment, required remedial classes.
But it still points to a skills gap, a problem for state political and business leaders seeking to attract high-tech employers.
“Part of the goal is to really reduce the number of students scoring Level 1 in 11th grade,” Moore said.
There is also a paper version of the SBA tests, which only seven districts in the state out of 289 are adopting. The tiny Index School District, which has 39 students and no high school, is one. The paper tests, of course, have the disadvantage of not being adaptive and not giving the students the experience of the online tests that will be a requirement everywhere in three years.
Opposition to the new testing regimen, whether to the SBA, to the federal Common Core standards to which the SBA is aligned, or to testing in general, has been sporadic so far, with small groups of parents at some schools opting their children out, Munson said.
Still, full acceptance will take time, and there is at least some support for alternatives. On Thursday in Olympia, state Sens. Maralyn Chase, a Shoreline Democrat representing part of south Snohomish County, and Pam Roach, a Republican from Auburn, said they will re-introduce a bill in 2016 to withdraw Washington from the Common Core standard and return to the previous Essential Academic Learning Requirements standard.
One of Matthews’ goals has been to counteract the fear of the unknown by orienting parents to the new way.
At the February meeting at Whittier Elementary, teacher Karren Johnson responded to a question from a parent about whether children would struggle with the new technology. “They pick up on things faster than we do,” Johnson replied.
“I really think there are people out there that are technology-averse,” Matthews said. “We’ve tried to alleviate that. We’re trying to find many different ways to capture these folks.”
“We’re not going to go backwards, right? This is closer to the world we are living in right now.”
Websites with more information about the new Smarter Balanced Assessment tests:
Ready Washington — A coalition of government, nonprofits and advocacy groups supporting Common Core, Smarter Balanced and new standards: readywa.org
The Smarter Balanced Consortium — A group of 22 states and territories working to implement Common Core standards through a single testing system: smarterbalanced.org
Smarter Balanced practice test — smarterbalanced.org/practice-test
Common Core — Home page for the national standards initiative: corestandards.org