The Common Core State Standards the new curriculum introduced to public schools in 43 states last year, attempt to standardize education requirements in line with worldwide workforce demands.

More rigorous in many ways because they require students to explain what they know and how they know it, the new standards sparked concern from parents across the country, worried about how the shift would affect their child’s GPA. The Smarter Balanced Assessment, the test designed to measure student comprehension in the Common Core environment, may revive this debate when students sit down to it this spring. Nevertheless, the SBA, which replaces the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test in English language arts and math, carries more weight for schools than it does for their students.

Schools use numerous metrics to gauge student success, such as class grades and local performance assessments; the SBA is just one of many factors. However, for school administrators, the SBA is the key indicator for how academic achievement is perceived at their schools by the state. The Oregon Department of Education uses the assessment to determine if the instruction at a given school translates to comprehension for its students.

Each year, the ODE issues report cards to every school and every district. The report cards offer families and communities information about school performance, holding schools accountable by using the same methods they use to evaluate students’ grades. The ODE factors in academic achievement (measured this year by the SBA), academic growth and subgroup growth to compute the school’s grade (subgroups include students from ethic groups, students with special education needs, English Language Learners and economically disadvantaged students). High schools add graduation rates to these other components. Schools receive individual and overall ratings based on these data.

The report cards issued by the ODE grade on a scale, comparing schools to others in the state and assembling them into groups of higher to lower percentiles. For example, Level 5 schools rank in the top 10 percent, and Level 4 schools rank in the top half of all Oregon schools but below the top 10 percent (45 percent of all students in the state attend Level 4 schools). Level 3 schools rank from the lower 48th percentile down to the lowest 16th percentile. Level 2 schools include the bottom 15 percent and Level 1 schools the lowest five percent.

The 2013-14 school year was the first issuing grades in the new Common Core environment. It was also the last year the OAKS test was used to measure English and math academic achievement.

In the David Douglas School District, five elementary schools scored lower than the previous year by one level while one elementary school climbed up a level. The fact that the CCSS emphasize the need for students to master more complex applications at younger ages did spark fears that achievement levels at elementary schools would plummet during this transition year. However, of Parkrose schools, only one elementary school, Prescott Elementary, showed poorer performance than last year. In fact, three out of Parkrose’s six schools improved over the former year. Russell Academy even jumped two levels.

Though these grades are valuable, they were gauged using an old measurement, the OAKS test, on a new methodology. Since the CCSS set a nationwide standard, a standard testing mechanism was also recommended. Two state-led consortiums answered the challenge. Oregon joined 21 other states, including all our neighbor states, as members of the Smarter Balanced Consortium to design a new test to align with the performance-based CCSS.

“Students need to show what they can do and demonstrate their learning,” said Brooke O’Neill, curriculum director for David Douglas School District, “With multiple choice there is a 25-percent chance they will get it right; this time with the performance component you really need to show what you know and demonstrate what you can do with that information.”

The new test will include two components: computer adaptive testing and performance tasks. Performance tasks challenge students to use their knowledge to respond to complex real-world problems. These activities better measure a student’s depth of understanding and analysis using writing and research skills. The computer adaptive testing calculates comprehension by providing students with questions based on their responses to other questions. In the Smarter Balanced test, multiple-choice questions can even have two right answers.

“Nothing is black and white, cut and dry, so we are preparing our students for that kind of testing environment,” said O’Neil. “It is a much more exiting way to learn; it is a much more rigorous way to learn.”

Though educators have not seen the actual test yet, the consortium ran a field test last spring. David Douglas sixth-graders.took part in the math component. While students reported finding the new test more challenging than the multiple choice OAKS test, the different performance elements kept them engaged. “Some of them said they actually enjoyed taking it,” said Derek Edens, director of technology and assessment for the district.

To prepare for the test, schools have integrated the testing methods in the classroom. “All of our students have worked on performance tasks based on the Smarter Balanced format,” said Michael Lopes, director of school improvement for Parkrose School District. “This requires time for students to read text, see visuals and process information as a whole group, and then they’re required to write to a prompt to demonstrate their understanding of the task.”

Other skills measured with the SBA include close reading skills. “We have to intentionally practice reading multiple texts of varying complexity and having students respond to questions that require them to reference the text in their response to a question,” said Lopes. “Being able to identify key components of text that highlight an author’s claim or support your opinion or thoughts on a response. We specifically teach these reading skills, which is very different instruction than in the past.”

The ODE has provided money to schools to purchase formative tools distributed by the Smarter Balanced consortium. The tools include a digital library of professional development materials, resources and teaching strategies aligned to the CCSS and SBA targets. The schools have the options to administer interim assessments, also designed by the Consortium, to gauge student progress throughout the school year. Both Parkrose and David Douglas school districts plan on investing in the interim tools. The cost is $4.95 per student.

In its inaugural year, the new assessment will test schools’ logistics. The SBA is an untimed test; the performance tasks alone can take one to two class periods to complete. The entire English language assessment is estimated to consume three to four hours and the math component relatively the same. In contrast, the OAKS test took students one hour to complete. Unsure whether students will have the attention span for such a long test, administrators will use their freedom to divide it up over shorter periods.

For this reason, the consortium established a time window of testing under the criterion that at least 66 percent of instructional days for elementary and middle schools and 80 percent of instructional days for high schools need to have passed before the test is administered. Only juniors take the test in high school while third through eighth-graders take will take it in the lower schools. The testing group has not varied from the OAKS assessment, but formerly, schools started OAKS in January, before students had learned half of their material. This year, Parkrose students will take the test from March through June. In the David Douglas School District, elementary and middle school students will take the test from late March through late May, while the high school window has been set for the months of April and May.

Scoring also takes longer.

While students knew their OAKS scores almost immediately and had the freedom to retake the test, the SBA gives students one shot and will not release the scores to districts until mid-summer. Since schools have yet to learn how they receive the scores, they still need to come up with a reporting mechanism to share the information with parents once they receive it.

With so much uncertainty, how prepared are the schools to date?

“We’ve been fortunate that our district had a bond, and we have purchased a new curriculum that is more aligned with Common Core in terms of the key things like kids needing to justify their answers and cite evidence,” said O’Neil.

“One of the biggest challenges we face are [sic]getting our kids ready for the technology and keyboarding.”

David Douglas provides Chromebooks for its students, but younger students need practice typing their responses to questions.

jan15_Tests_sidebarLopes also found the keyboard component a challenge in Parkrose schools, “We have one-to-one iPads in the district, but iPads must have a keyboard at this time, and we do not have iPad keyboards for our students. Computer labs will be a primary place students will take the tests, but we will have some iPads with keyboards as well. Logistics of testing more than 1,000 kids is difficult if they don’t all have the device.”
So, as they gear up for their big test, how apprehensive are administrators?

“Our concern is time and resources to complete the test,” said Lopes. “We are concerned about students’ stamina and the amount of instructional time lost taking an extensive exam.” Nevertheless, he said, “We think the rigor and skill level required to take the test is a good thing for our students’ future.”

O’Neil commented, “I think it will be challenging, but we will get better at it as we go, and it is an exciting way to teach and learn. There will be concerns when the initial scores come out. It does not mean that our kids know less than they did before; they are actually learning at a much higher level than they ever have been. That is one thing to keep in mind.”

This year, fifth-, eighth- and eleventh-grade students will continue to take the science assessment delivered by OAKS, though parents should stay tuned; the Next Generation Science Standards will affect testing in the future.