What I learned taking the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test

kids

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

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