What I learned taking the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test


It was created for imaginary children who exist only in the minds of the people who made the tests. These imaginary third through fifth graders are perfectly willing and able to sit still and focus for forty-five minutes, type, problem-solve random computer glitches, and effortlessly switch between two or more open windows at the same time. They can easily resist the temptation to just switch tabs on their browser and do something fun instead. Also, they have access to imaginary huge monitors.

I’m a parent with two kids in a Seattle elementary public school, facing the upcoming Smarter Balanced state tests. A week or so ago, our principal gave an informational session on them. Here’s a little of what I learned, and some first impressions.

Full disclosure: I had already made up my mind to opt my kids out, so I’m not what you would call an unbiased observer. On the other hand, I’m not categorically opposed to the Common Core, or standardized testing either. They have potential, if done well and not misused for high-stakes purposes. This test fails on both counts.

First, some of the basics. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is a suite of computer-based tests that will replace the state MSP test in math and English language arts for third through eighth grade. (The MSP will still be given for science.) It won’t replace the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which is still given to some grades, but additional interim tests might replace it.

Twenty-five states are going to be giving this test for the first time. It was piloted last year, in New York State, but that state decided to back out of the program. Based on that pilot and other estimates, an estimated sixty percent of students will fail the test. Scores are expected to rise in future years, so this year is just a “baseline.”

You can find out more about the test at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website.

Next, the surprise. We had the opportunity to take practice tests ourselves, and I was absolutely shocked–not only at the difficulty of the test questions but mostly at the user interface.  I honestly don’t think anybody tested this thing out on actual children before wrapping it up in a pretty package and selling it to our state legislatures.

It was created for imaginary children who exist only in the minds of the people who made the tests. These imaginary third through fifth graders are perfectly willing and able to sit still and focus for forty-five minutes, type, problem-solve random computer glitches, and effortlessly switch between two or more open windows at the same time. They can easily resist the temptation to just switch tabs on their browser and do something fun instead. Also, they have access to imaginary huge monitors.

This test was so problematic that I had trouble just opening it. Actually, we all did. Our proctor asked us to sign in and then follow along. We all clicked the button to sign in only to get an obscure message saying our session had timed out. None of us had any idea how to get back to the sign-in screen, until somebody said we could just click the back button on the browser.

The next screen had a sound test. We didn’t have headsets, and the volume was turned down, so our proctor told us to just click on the sound icon and then click “yes” to say we could hear the sound. But I had already clicked “No” — because I couldn’t hear sound — and it turns out the test won’t let you go forward if you click “No.” By the time I found my way back to the page, I had forgotten about the sound icon and tried to click “Yes,” but nothing happened, because you were supposed to click on the sound icon first.

Finally we got in. We went first to the “performance task” for English Language Arts. This is a task that is supposed to take forty-five minutes to complete, although students can take extra time if they need it. Believe me, they’re going to need it.

You can see the test for yourself by going to the practice test web page, or, to get the general idea, here’s a screen shot. The passage to read is on the left, the notepad for taking notes is in the middle, and the response panel is on the right. I can manage all these windows, and a high school student could, but . . . a fourth-grader?

sbac grade 4 language arts performance task

(click on the image to enlarge.)

Or a third grader?

You can’t do much to change the user interface. You can move the notepad around, or you can close the notepad and use scratch paper instead. You can’t resize it and you can’t move it out of the browser window. You can expand the narrow little reading passage, but then it takes up most of the screen (see below). None of that would be comfortable even for me.

Here’s a shot (from a third grade test) of what happens if the reading passage is expanded and the notepad is open. The text is covered up! And so are the questions!

third grade practice test for the sbac

(click on the image to enlarge.)

I just don’t even know what to say here, except to say that my kids won’t be doing it.

The second shock was the instructional time lost. This wasn’t part of the official presentation — I had to ask, and I had to ask how it would play out in my school. The test is supposed to take seven hours, which is quite a lot. The idea is to administer it in four one-and-a-half-hour chunks, plus maybe an hour of makeup time. I asked how it would play out in our school, and the answer is that it’s not finalized. What will probably happen, though, is that there will be ten to fifteen blocks of time, between 9 to 11:30, over the course of two to three weeks. I think this is based on recommendations from schools that have taken the test. Possibly recess will happen in the middle, and/or gym or library time.

Holy cow! That’s when math and reading happen! Two to three weeks of lost math and reading, just so we can test our kids to find out how well they are doing on math and reading? 

One thing I didn’t hear much about, but should have, is the teacher perspective on the tests. The teachers who were there didn’t speak either in favor of or in opposition to the tests, although I’m quite sure they had opinions. To be honest, I think they were afraid to speak their minds.

In the absence of teacher comments, though, there is the Washington Education Association, which has come out in supp0rt of parents opting out. KUOW reporter Ann Dornfield broke the news last year, saying:

The state’s largest teachers’ union has passed a motion to support parents and students who opt out of statewide standardized tests. The union also promotes opting out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium state test coming next school year to align with the new Common Core State Standards.

Noam Gundle, who teaches science at Ballard High School in Seattle, introduced the motion at the Washington Education Association representative assembly in Spokane on Friday.

‘This motion is about promoting positive learning in the classroom, as opposed to a fixation on testing,’ Gundle said.

Amen to that.

– Parent in Seattle

27 thoughts on “What I learned taking the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test

  1. One thing I’d like to add the conversation is that when we took the test, a few of my friends had questions that had no correct answers listed, even the teacher was puzzled at the answers, as they were all incorrect. Thankfully, I only have to take this test once.

  2. These types of tests are completely unnecessary, a waste of time and money as well as pure stupidity. I hate to say this but when I was in school these types of tests were given, they took up my valuable learning time and took away from my even wanting to be in class turing this time. Someone needs to give the moron that thought up these tests all of them and not be allowed to leave until any of them are complete. Give them questions like, what is the square root of pi divided by 24,000 times 6 to the 12th power plus 300squared. And what is the hypotenuse of 12 divided by 600*3456 plus pi times 9. Or what is the coefficient of a jet engine spinning at 24,000 Rpm and the equivalent thrust of 75,000 pounds using FOUR of the same engine?

  3. So, it seems very clear that most educated people see this test for the sham that it is;however, I do not see anyone offer a suggestion as to how we can stop the administration of the test to children. After attending a diversity in education conference in Vancouver, WA I learned that there is only a one year window to convince legislators to change this test. does anyone know how this is to happen? You are correct in assuming that educators are afraid to speak out!
    -a very unhappy 5th grade educator

    1. Pam,

      There are four candidates running for OSPI State Superintendent.

      The most effective way to affect change right now is to either participate in a forum and bring up the subject and/or to contact the candidates directly and let them know what you as an educator know what’s best for your students.

      The candidates also want to take every opportunity they have to meet with voters so another suggestion is to get a group of teachers and parents together and request a meeting with each candidate.

      On the front page of this website are responses that were made to the question of opting out of the SBAC. There is also contact information for each candidate at the end of their response.

      Then, contact your representatives in the State House and Senate and give them an earful about CCS and the SBAC.

      We also post op-ed’s and articles written by parents, students and educators and will be glad to post what you write about the SBAC and your experiences with the testing. Our readers appreciate learning about these experiences.


  4. This test is horrible and unnecessary. Why are we testing kids on things they haven’t learned? I want them to do better in Math and reading so we making it harder for them. Talk about bright ideas…..

  5. Thanks for this post. I’ve written two critiques of the SBAC (http://eduresearcher.com/2015/09/08/openletter/ and http://eduresearcher.com/2015/07/06/critical-questions-computerized-testing-sbac/)
    and will be integrating much of the above post into my next one. I find the test to be fraudulent on an epic scale. If the author of the post or owners of the blog may have information about financial supporters/promoters of the SBAC (aside from the federal grants for its development), please contact me. I’m doing an investigative piece that would benefit from this information. Thank you.

  6. The test is a bad idea in principle, and I know of two that are poorly constructed. The “performance tasks” for language arts are riddled with style and grammar errors, not to mention errors in fact. It’s embarrassing to show them to my students because they point out the errors (which I taught them to notice). In math, one of my students pointed out that his test labeled a triangle with sides of 6, 12 and 30 units. Try drawing that triangle!

  7. As a high schooler taking the SBAC, I absolutely agree. Besides confusing interface, ridiculous questions (an entire section was on academic integrity), and the waste of school time, a lot of our teachers dislike it. A few teachers actually publicly criticized it. They don’t anymore, though. They’ve been told they aren’t allow to.

  8. My 4th grader started testing yesterday in FWPS. During his test, he experienced the audio issues you mention above and had to be logged back in three times during just one test session. He said it was the same for everyone in class. What a hot mess.

  9. There is a mathematical problem in one of questions in the 3rd grade practice test in SBAC.

    The first part of the question asked students to figure out an unknown side of a polygon given the perimeter of the polygon. This pretty straight forward,

    The second part asked the child to figure out the area of the polygon. The trouble is that the angles of the polygon are not stated. If one assumes from the figure provided that the angles are right angles, then everything falls in place. Without this assumption, the area is actually unknown.

    This kind of problem could send a child who is advanced beyond his grade level into a tail-spin, because the interface does not allow him to state the assumption.

  10. My favorite was when I couldn’t start the test until I turned off the computer pop up blocker. I wasn’t sure how, and 30 kids waiting “patiently” for me. Also, both the school library and computer lab closed for a month. Some students (although not many) took the entire day to finish the first session.

  11. I am not against testing or the Common Core but the SBAC test is only a work in progress and yet it sounds like SPS is getting ready to use this year’s tests scores to make educational decisions that will impact our teachers, schools and children. That is unethical!

    Please read the attached link: http://edsource.org/2014/smarter-balanced-tests-are-still-a-work-in-progress/69828#.VRRTjWZm0SR

    – A concerned mother who has an M.Ed and specializes in psychometric testing

  12. It’s a hideous test, and the consortia did not listen to any of the feedback given to them in regards to interface or the wording of the directions. There’s even more fun stuff – like the fact that if a kid doesn’t log out of the test (like at lunch time), the test cannot be restarted for 8 hours. How many kids are just going to click and close the browser window without logging out – either intentionally or not? Plus the SBAC trumpets the fact that they have all these built in tools for accommodations, but kids get distracted and play with them, or they don’t work properly for the kids who really need them. I’d like to see Patty Murray sit down and take this test.

    1. You’re right. We need to petition some of our politicians who voted to have the Common Core Standards in our country and in our state to take the test. It wouldn’t hurt to have our superintendent take the test along with the board members who didn’t even want to have a conversation about it here in Seattle.

      Parents had politicians in one or two states take the test and it was an effective way to change their minds about the product they had previously approved.


  13. Thank you for going through that for us. I do not understand how anyone can think it a good use of time to spend weeks – or even one whole week – testing children instead of teaching them. I happen to have homeschooled my kids, and I had them take the Iowa test every year as a general assessment. We finished the test in one day. It tested spelling, grammar, reading comp, math, even library skills. It was clear and simple to take, and it gave me very good information on what my children knew and understood.

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