Maryland and D.C. schools to begin field-testing new Common Core exams next week

Tens of thousands of students in Maryland and the District are slated to log on to computers this spring to take practice versions of a new standardized test, exams meant to gauge their performance on new national academic guidelines known as the Common Core State Standards.

Forty-five states and the District have adopted the Common Core standards, which are designed to promote critical thinking instead of rote memorization. Next year, those states will begin administering new exams that will be used to judge schools and, in many jurisdictions, teachers and principals.

The field tests — which will be administered to millions of students across the country, including to Maryland children next week and D.C. children next month — are meant to help fine-tune the online exams before they go live next year. The tests usher in a major shift that will require many school systems to upgrade their technology and their methods of instruction.

“This is a total reset of how we do assessment,” said John White, chief of staff for the Maryland State Department of Education. “Rather than just test whether kids know and can regurgitate facts, there’s an opportunity to make sure kids can think and communicate.”

Maryland and the District are part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two groupings of states that have developed new exams with the help of $350 million from the federal government.

PARCC is giving its field test to more than 1 million students in the District and 14 states, including Maryland.

Approximately 65,000 Maryland students will participate in the field test, including at least one classroom in nearly every school in the state. Maryland received permission from the federal government for participating students to skip the state’s usual standardized test when it was administered earlier this year.

“We don’t want to double-test kids,” said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the state education department. “That was our goal.”

In the District, about 5,000 students in 135 schools will take the PARCC field test. That number will include students at charter and traditional schools. But District students taking the PARCC field test will still have to take the annual city test, the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, which plays a big role in the evaluation of teachers and schools.

Student scores on the PARCC field tests will not be shared with students, families, schools or states. Instead, PARCC officials will use the results to see how the technology functions and to examine the responses to test questions.

“It’s an opportunity to learn by trying the test out with students to see what parts we need to improve,” said Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts education commissioner who chairs the governing board of PARCC. “Are there parts of the test that are too hard for students? Parts they didn’t understand?”

Chester said he expects problems to arise when students begin testing next week.

“It would surprise me if there were no glitches,” he said. “This is a very ambitious project. We’re utilizing online administration in a depth and breadth of manner that has not been previously attempted.”

At Marley Elementary School in Anne Arundel County on Thursday, a group of fourth-grade students slated to take a practice PARCC reading exam next week worked through an online tutorial showing them how to navigate the new format.

Ryan Moorman, 10, said he prefers the online test because on traditional paper tests, “my hand starts to get tired. On this, all you have to do is type.”

Students also praised the test’s online tools, which include a magnifying glass to enlarge text, a ruler, a protractor and a calculator available for some math questions.

But Marley Principal Nina Lattimore cautioned that with the online format comes new challenges for schools, particularly schools that do not have enough computers to give students frequent opportunities to practice for the tests.

“You have to have the capacity to have kids constantly using this technology” to prepare them, Lattimore said, pointing out that the paper-and-pencil strategies students used to answer questions now need to be replaced with online strategies.

“You’re asking kids to be proficient in more than one tool,” she said. “You’re not just testing reading comprehension. You’re testing whether the child can use an online tool.”

Although the District committed to PARCC years ago, city officials have recently been mulling a switch to the test developed by the other group of states. That test is known as Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC.

SBAC is beginning field tests next week with more than 3 million students in 22 states. Several of those states, including California, Idaho, Connecticut and South Dakota, are administering the SBAC test to all their students instead of using their old state assessments.

The SBAC test is an adaptive exercise, which means that when a student answers a question correctly, the computer increases the difficulty of the next question, a feature that proponents say can give educators a more exact idea of a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Both tests will be online, although paper-and-pencil versions are available initially to school districts without enough computers. The tests will be given to students in grades three through eight and to at least one grade in high school.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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