Saddle Peak Elementary School third grader Becca Meyer sits intently at her computer. A mouse rests on its pad, a pencil in her hand. Meyer ponders the problem before her.
“What unknown number makes this equation true?”
84 + 8 = 84 + 10 - ____.
There is a small keypad on the screen with numbers to type in an answer to her question. Meyer writes the equation on her paper, scratches out an answer and transfers it from paper to computer.
This is the new testing model for the Common Core. Old bubble tests are out, computerized Smarter Balance tests are in. According to the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium website, the test is made up of “performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.”
Belgrade students spent April and the beginning of May taking the tests for the first time.
At Belgrade School Board meeting two weeks ago, principals talked about the trials and triumphs of the new Common Core testing.
Ridge View Elementary School Principal Mat Johnston said the practice run was “not ideal by any means.”
The old tests tethered to the federal No Child Left Behind standards were “read and fill in the dot” format, Johnston recalled. The new tests are a lot more labor intensive, the Ridge View principal said.
Students are required to not only enter an answer on a computer, they must also explain why they chose that answer. Since everything is computerized, even the youngest test-takers in third grade must enter fractions on a keyboard.
“It’s trial and error,” Johnston said. “But we’re working our way through it.”
Third and fourth grade students took the Common Core tests in the three Belgrade Elementary Schools.
Dave Smith, the principal at Saddle Peak Elementary School, said the inaugural tests have been fraught with frustrations and challenges.
“There’s a lot of not only typing for kids to be asked to do at third and fourth grade level… but a lot of navigation,” Smith said.
Elementary school students aren’t prepared for maneuvering around a computer screen with multiple other screens unfolding rapidly, Smith said.
Meyer’s third grade classmates work on typing exercises if they finish the Smarter Balance tests ahead of time. On Wednesday morning, Meyer and the other students in Sara Smith’s third grade class spent 90 minutes in the computer lab working on the practice test.
Heck/Quaw Elementary School Principal Lori Dagenhart said her students need better keyboarding and computer skills to keep up with the Common Core tests.
Dagenhart said she is also learning that students are more focused in the morning. At the end of the day, test results are worse than at the beginning of the day.
“Overall the kids are trying to persevere through it,” Dagenhart said.
The tests this year will be scored but they won’t count against the school, rather they are a way for students and teachers to get familiarized with a completely new test format.
In the Belgrade Middle School, all 907 students took the tests. Belgrade Middle School Principal Julie Mickolio said shuffling that many students through computer labs was difficult. Accommodating displaced classes to make room for test takers was also a challenge.
“It’s very tedious and rigorous,” Mickolio said. “The (tests) are way different than the CRT.”
Russ McDaniel, the Belgrade High School Principal, said teachers are learning a lot from the inaugural trial tests. All junior students are required to take the Smarter Balance tests.
Belgrade District Curriculum Director Mark Halgren said he was told by the Montana Office of Public Instruction to expect a “significant decrease” in test scores under the Smarter Balance system.
In Belgrade and around the nation, teachers, students and parents are talking about test tribulations. Some of the hiccups with the new tests include poorly worded directions, answers that require multiple steps and questions with long blocks of text.
Halgren said that when his phone rings these days, it’s usually says “computer lab.” Despite the technical difficulties getting students logged on to take the test, Halgren said there are some “real bright spots” from the first year of testing.
One of benefits is the adaptive nature of the new tests. The difficulty of the new test questions adjusts based on student performance.
“It will challenge our brightest students,” Halgren said. “And lead to reduced frustration for other students.”
Halgren said teachers are encouraged to give feedback about the tests to make them better by next year when they will be scored.