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Kansas schools brace for new assessment tests this spring

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, at 9:05 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, April 21, 2014, at 5:35 a.m.

The state assessments Kansas students take this spring won’t be the same multiple-choice tests they’re used to.

And scores, say education officials, likely won’t be as high as in previous years.

“We will go down,” said Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker. “We will probably see them drop 20 to 30 percentage points.

“So that’s going to be a headline. … But it’s really just a result of changing standards and changing the assessment.”

Education officials are preparing to roll out a new type of test designed to reflect new Common Core state standards. It will feature more complex questions and “technology-enhanced” items that require students to enter numerical answers, drag and drop items into correct categories or highlight portions of text that support a central idea.

Most students – including more than 50,000 in Wichita, the state’s largest district – have yet to see a sample test or practice using the new computer functions. They will begin taking the tests March 7.

“We kind of know what’s going to be available, but we haven’t been able to actually get in (the state’s computer system) and use that yet,” said Denise Seguine, assistant superintendent of learning services for Wichita.

“We have no control over it, so we’re really just focusing on following our instructional guides and teaching our kids,” she said.

In Kansas, reading and math assessments are administered each year to students in third through eighth grades and once in high school. Science assessments are made in grades 4, 7 and 11. Tests on writing and history/government are administered every other year.

State assessment tests are used to determine whether a student meets standards in specific areas. For the past 12 years – before Kansas received a waiver from some provisions of No Child Left Behind – test results also determined whether schools met improvement targets, and some faced sanctions for not meeting prescribed goals.

Test-driving new tests

Education officials say this year’s assessments are a kind of test-drive, a first venture into a new style of assessment that, for the first time, is fully aligned with standards adopted in 2010.

The tests themselves will be shorter this year – two 45-minute sessions instead of three – but questions are richer and more complex, designed to better measure students’ critical thinking skills.

Consider the following sample fourth-grade math question.

Your class of 25 students wants to take a field trip. You could go to the zoo, the science museum or the park. The zoo costs $300 for the class. The science museum costs $3.50 per student. The park is free, but it is seven miles away and you would have to rent a bus that charges $2 per mile. Which option would you choose and why?

Students could be asked to drag and drop fractions onto a number line or highlight details from a reading passage that support certain themes. After reading about the life cycle of a butterfly, students could be instructed to put the terms “egg, adult, pupa, larva” into the proper order.

Rather than a traditional question about percentages, such as “calculate 2/3 of 100,” students could see a graph with 100 boxes and be asked to color in two-thirds of the squares.

Older students might get two pieces of complex text – for example, Ovid’s “Daedalus and Icarus” and Anne Sexton’s “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph” – and be asked to decipher and compare central ideas supported by textual evidence.

“What it’s trying to measure is: Can a kid analyze? Can they draw inferences?” said Brad Neuenswander, deputy education commissioner. “It’s not just a simple A, B, C or D.

“Even the questions that are multiple choice are designed to get at a deeper level of thinking.”

Two other changes: Students no longer will be able to use hand-held calculators for the math test; they’ll be able to access an on-screen calculator for certain questions. And students who qualify for the “text-to-speech” accommodation – where passages are read aloud to them – will hear a computer-generated voice rather than a real person on-site.

The Kansas school board voted last month to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and use tests designed by the University of Kansas instead. The KU Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, which has been designing the state’s tests for more than 30 years, began writing Common Core-aligned items two years ago and field-tested them last spring.

Officials say transitional tests this spring will be machine-scored. Tests in 2015 and beyond will include writing prompts and other tasks that require deeper understanding and more time-intensive scoring.

‘A new journey’

This year’s tests will establish a new benchmark for schools.

That means a new set of cut scores – the scores that establish categories such as “meets standard” or “exceeds standard” – and no way to accurately compare results year to year. Because this year’s test will take longer to score, in fact, schools likely won’t even get results until summer.

It also means that at some level, the pressure is off. This won’t be the high-stakes assessment season of the past, when schools held test-day pep rallies to motivate kids, and their reputations hinged on the scores.

“What are teachers supposed to do? Just teach,” said DeBacker, the state commissioner. “Breathe. Don’t worry about the test.

“What we’re trying to do is change the conversation. … But we have lived for the past 12 or 13 years with it being all about assessment results, so it’s going to take us a little bit of time.”

Brooke Landgren, who teaches third grade at Stanley Elementary School in Wichita, said she and her colleagues are trying to stay calm and flexible. But many worry that much of the test is still a mystery with the testing season just weeks away.

“In the past, we’ve had some mock tests and questions that we’ve been able to go over with students to get them prepared and more comfortable, and we don’t have that yet,” said Landgren, who also is testing coordinator at Stanley.

“With everything being so new, it’s a little scary,” she said. “It’s just kind of a new journey for us.”

During the transition to Common Core, teachers in Kansas and elsewhere have looked to sample test questions from Smarter Balanced and other testing companies. State officials say those are similar to the questions being developed by KU and that schools should be able to access Kansas-specific sample questions in coming weeks.

Mary Carpenter, assessment coordinator at Christa McAuliffe Academy, said she’s doing her best to calm nerves as schools head toward another year of testing.

“You know, it’s not a test they’re going to be able to study for,” she said. “Transitions are always difficult and change is always difficult, so part of our job is to help people adapt and just lower the anxiety.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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