New testing standards present challenges for Vermont schools

by Retta Dunlap

In August 2010, the Vermont State Board of Education adopted the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Creation of CCSS was facilitated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officials back in 2009. Most of the states in the U.S. have adopted these standards. Since adoption, these states have been hard at work creating a next generation assessment system called the SMARTER Balanced Assessment (or test) based on CCSS.

Although the implementation deadline for these standards is not until the 2013/2014 school year for all states, Vermont schools are already preparing to deal with the challenges in implementing the new standards. The year after implementation, in 2015, the new assessment system will be in place and there is uncertainty among some school officials concerning this new test. Not much is known about the computer technology which will be used to administer the test. One significant question that needs to be addressed: Do our schools even have the technology to administer the new test?

This new assessment system will require each student to take the test on a computer. The computerized test will be intuitive and adjust the questions making them either harder or easier based on the student’s responses. The students, by the end of the testing session, will be tested on their own personal levels, which could still be above or below grade and would be recorded as such. The computer will then score the test as soon as the student is finished, and provide instant feedback to teaching staff.

JoAn Canning, Superintendent for the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, doesn’t have enough information about the testing system to say whether her schools have the needed technology to run the new tests, or if they will need to update their equipment. Even the group creating the test, the SMARTER Balance Assessment Consortia, does not know all the details yet.

For example, the new test uses open source technology, which, in the computer world, means that anyone can have access to the computer code and can change it in any way. This raises another unanswered question. Can any state or any school have access to the test code and change it?

According to Michael Hock at the Vermont Department of Education, who is one of Vermont’s liaisons to the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortia, “There needs to be an official policy from the Federal government that explains what open source technology means” in this instance. Since the test questions will be in a computer, the integrity of the test needs to be protected while allowing any state to use the testing software and only incur the operational expenses.

Not everyone is supportive of these new standards or high stakes testing. William Mathis, who sits on the Vermont State Board of Education and is a former Vermont Superintendent, states in a policy brief written for the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice states that “research support for standards-driven, test-based accountability systems is similarly weak.” He recommends that the “common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials and subsequent revisions before implementation.” This was published just weeks before the Vermont State Board voted to adopt these standards as most states have.

The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officials created a validation committee for the standards which does not agree with Mathis. In a report they published in June of 2010, they identify these as “certified research- and evidenced-based standards”. For Vermont, implementation of these standards has been moving forward and the new test is sure to follow.

Superintendent Canning describes what the new standards will mean for her district. “Teachers will be dealing with implementing the standards through the development of curriculum and professional development.” A year ago the OSSU began checking the alignment of the OSSU’s curriculum to each area of the CCSS, and, according to Canning, English Language Arts are already closely aligned with the new standards, but math will need to become a bit more rigorous.

Implementation of the new standards could also affect some of the board policies about student outcomes, which now may need to be adjusted to meet the standards.

At the end of the day, there are considerable taxpayer dollars committed to developing this new assessment system. With all of the work necessarily ahead for schools, teachers, and principals to put this into place, and with all of the concerns about whether new standards and a new test will actually bring about a better education for children there is only one silver lining I can see: Parents and taxpayers will still be getting the same types of information about how many kids are proficient or below proficient, but from the student’s point of view, the computerized test should be easier to take and less stressful.

One thought on “New testing standards present challenges for Vermont schools

  1. “opensource” probably means that the operating system (such as LINUX) and possibly the programs are not proprietary. However, this has no bearing on the security of data files containing the questions and answers.

    It is conceivable that if one could find the source code of the programs one could learn how to “game” the test and possibly write practice and tutoring software, but I don’t think that’s a big concern.

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