With laptops open, a fifth-grade class at Hancock Place Elementary School plotted points on a graph and then listened as a teacher showed them which buttons to click to construct a line.
They were online working through examples for the state’s new Missouri Assessment Program — known as MAP — tests for the state’s public schools. In another classroom last week, third-graders practiced writing responses to a question that asked them to explain their answer and back it up with supporting details.
“How many sentences does it ask you for?” teacher Kyle Icenhower asked the third-grade boy who wrote just one. “I should see at least four to five.”
Across Missouri, the rollout of the new standardized tests begins Monday, changing the way students take the exam, the content used to measure their knowledge and how state education officials checked for cheating.
No longer will students fill in bubble sheets with a pencil to answer questions based on decades-old learning standards. Instead, they will click their responses on a computer to show what they know based on the new, controversial Common Core State Standards.
The combination of changes in one year have the potential to create not only technical glitches, but also to cause a decrease in the percentage of students statewide who pass.
“It’s such a different beast this year,” said Jill Wright, principal of Hancock Place Elementary.
That said, the Missouri Legislature is giving schools that could be at risk of a drop in accreditation a hall pass this year.
Under a bill passed last year, this year’s test results cannot be used in making accountability decisions with regard to school districts. The measure was approved as part of a larger bill supported by critics of the state’s adoption of the Common Core.
The reprieve could come as a relief to St. Louis Public Schools and the Ferguson-Florissant School District. Each has posted scores in the state’s annual performance reports the last two years that threaten its accreditation classification.
While end-of-course tests for high schools have been computer-based since 2010, this is the first year pupils in elementary school will take state tests on computers.
The change has left some schools scrambling for enough computers to take the test. The testing window is longer than it once was so that administrators have enough time to move computers from school to school, if need be. To be sure the technology is ready, they’ve conducted simulations.
Wentzville, which has been the fastest growing school district in the state for the past several years, spent about $110,000 to buy more computers for the test. The district also quadrupled its bandwidth to make sure the system wouldn’t slow during the test-taking period.
St. Louis Public Schools spent $6 million on a network upgrade two years ago to update systems from 2001. A bond issue provided another $6 million to buy 3,500 computers for additional computer labs.
The district’s one-to-one iPad initiative for third- and fourth-graders means they’ll be taking the test on a device they use every day. That will help to bridge the gap for students coming from high-poverty homes with less access to computers than students in more affluent districts.
Many schools are spending time familiarizing students with how to take an interactive test on computer.
“We don’t want them to see it for a first time on a high-stakes test,” said Jennifer Allen, an assistant superintendent in the Wentzville School District.
Students might be asked click on certain parts to provide a response, or watch a video and then drag and drop labels into a diagram.
“We had more experience with the old test, so of course we were more comfortable with it,” said Kevin Beckner, coordinator of student assessment for Parkway schools. “We want to make sure they don’t miss a bunch of questions just because they don’t know what to do.”
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Since Missouri adopted the Common Core five years ago, schools have been slowly adapting to the more rigorous standards.
As in other states, the adoption brought backlash from critics who believed the idea gave control to the federal government over what is taught in local classrooms. Across the country, some parents are opting their children out of the tests, causing problems for districts that are required to administer tests as an accountability measure.
Most schools had begun aligning their curriculum to the new standards, which aim to help students learn at a deeper level, when Missouri legislators stepped in. They passed a bill that has work groups starting from scratch to revise what should be known at certain grade levels.
And there have been other problems.
The new tests taken on the computer were supposed to be adaptive, meaning the questions would change to a different degree of difficulty based on a student’s answer. This would help parents and teachers better identify their ability level.
But because of a late delivery of files from one of the testing vendors, there was not enough time to ensure test quality, said Sharon Helwig, assistant commissioner in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The test will remain fixed-form.
In February, after a lawsuit filed by an anti-Common Core group, a Missouri judge ruled that the state’s membership in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium was illegal. The consortium is a group of states working to create common assessments and share the cost. The attorney general has filed an appeal.
Some say the move to computer testing should help crack down on cheating.
Missouri education officials were required for the first time this year to include in the state’s contract with the exam vendor data forensics to detect fraud. The computer system also leaves a time-stamp trail that would make it noticeable if someone were to go in and change answers, Helwig said.
In Illinois, the testing window has been open for several weeks.
While no large-scale problems have developed, state Superintendent Chris Koch asked districts last week to remind students that cellphones are not allowed during the exams. That’s because some states have found, through an alert system used by the testing company, that students had posted test items that could allow cheating. Koch said that had occurred just a few times in Illinois.
The Missouri grade-level tests for English and math will take about an hour each in grades three, four, six and seven. Testing will be longer and more involved for grades five and eight. Those students will take the full test in those subjects plus science, and their exams will include a “performance task or event.”
The move to computer tests means schools will have results back in about 10 days, Helwig said. Previously, results were delayed until after the school year had ended.
The window for grade-level testing and end-of-course exams in Missouri runs through May 22. Schools schedule exams at different times within that window.
Some schools that begin testing at the start of the window have told parents they will have scores sent home with a child’s end-of-year report card.