Students, Teachers React to SBA

Two Students React:  Old Saybrook Middle School students Emmy Skiles and Will Webb speak about their reaction to taking the computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessment. The new test system is aligned with Common Core standards set for each grade level and subject area.
Two Students React: Old Saybrook Middle School students Emmy Skiles and Will Webb speak about their reaction to taking the computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessment. The new test system is aligned with Common Core standards set for each grade level and subject area. Photo by Becky Coffey/ Harbor News

Last week the Old Saybrook schools ended the first district-wide administration of a new generation of computer-based standardized tests: the Common Core-based Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) for language arts and math. And now the reactions are coming in.

Here's some of what students are saying: The tests are challenging, but also more engaging. Taking the test on the computer was better for most than using paper and pencil. And being able to get up and take breaks reduced stress.

That's right-a key feature of the new tests (grade-level assessments aligned with Common Core standards) are that they are self-paced and, as a self-paced test, there's no test time limit. If students need a break-or need to take more time-they can do it.

"After 45 minutes, students were allowed to take a snack break. Some students did and others wanted to press on," said Karen Evans, the Old Saybrook Middle School (OSMS) math and science teacher for 4th grade.

Westbrook High School (WHS) student Lydia Murphy, who took the 11th-grade SBA, liked the fact the test was not timed.

"Everyone was less stressed because they could take their test in their own time. And you could return to your own test later" if you needed to, said Murphy.

The format found some favor over the previous Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT).

OSMS teacher Evans said, "The Language Arts SBA was definitely more challenging than the CMTs. I watched my children, though, and they handled it great. They were comfortable."

Nicki DeFillippo, the OSMS computer literacy instructor and proctor of the computer-based testing, said, "Students seemed more engaged taking the tests on the computer. Their eyes don't wander as much as they did during the CMTs."

OSMS 5th-graders Emmy Skiles and Will Webb agreed.

"It was easier to use a computer to enter the answers," said Skiles.

"I like to use a computer more [to take the test]. Technology's the new thing. We should embrace it," said Webb. "I'd like kids to know that you may be worried about the test-Oh, it's on a computer. But it's okay; your teachers have prepared you."

The state's previous standardized tests, the CMTs, were paper and pencil, timed tests for students from grade 3 through 8. Eight test sessions were needed each year to administer each grade level's CMT.

The new SBA has four tests-two for language arts and two for mathematics. For each subject, there is one non-performance test and one multi-step performance task assessment. With no science SBA yet, students also take the CMT science test section in addition.

At OSMS, students go to the computer lab as a class to take the SBA. To start, students log on with their unique identifier. Then they proceed at their own pace.

For each test, students read, view graphics, manipulate data, enter their work, listen to subject-related audio files, and record their answers all on the computer.

The language arts performance task required that students develop an essay that synthesized and analyzed information gained from reading a written passage (some passages can take 30 minutes to read), viewing images and maps, and from listening to an audio segment (e.g., a lecture).

Skiles, when asked if she'd heard others comment on the test, said, "My friend really liked the audio portions."

The CMTs, as a paper and pencil test, did not include audio clips.

Comparing the CMT language arts section to the non-performance language arts section of the SBA, Skiles said the SBA reading took more time, but, "the questions were about the same."

The mathematics non-performance test was challenging for another reason-some questions asked the 5th-grade students to use math skills to which they were not yet introduced.

"I thought the math was challenging because we hadn't yet studied area or volume, but there were questions on that," said Skiles.

WHS student Murphy and others she spoke with had a similar reaction to Skiles when facing the 11th-grade SBA math test section.

"What raised the most concerns was that there was a range of math skills tested at one grade level ranging from simple to very advanced, even calculus and physics," said Murphy.

The SBA mathematics performance tasks were all multi-step word problems that required students to use the answer from one question as input for another question.

"Students had multiple pieces of information on the screen at the same time," said Evans.

Fifth-grader Webb said he found the math performance task challenging and a little confusing.

"It was different because we had to think outside the box to answer the questions. You needed to really dissect the problems. It was very different, too, because you had to transfer information from reading to the computer," said Webb.

Students could scroll up and down through the test to review their earlier answers and use the results in the next question.

A 90-minute testing window was set aside by OSMS administrators for each of the four tests, plus a 30-minute in-class discussion session in advance of each performance task test. Because the SBA is self-paced, students often finished before the testing period was over. For those who did not, they were allowed to return during another test period to finish their exam.

Practice Test Glitches

While there were glitches with this year's SBA administration, administrators and staff said they were fewer than expected.

"I was impressed by how well it worked," said Evans.

What were the glitches that did arise? Some related to computers that froze once students logged in to the test site. Other issues were tied to how to enter information into the computer program.

One issue Evans cited was the problem of entering a mixed fraction using the computer keyboard-but Evans noted it was the kids who figured out how to do it.

"The kids are more flexible than the adults," Evans said of students' ability to adapt to the new computer-based test.

OSMS Principal Mandy Ryan said, "We started shifting to new [teaching] units based on Common Core standards about three years ago."

But not every unit now taught is in alignment with the Common Core standards.

Heston Sutman, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment in Old Saybrook, said, "We are still implementing the new curriculum. We did prepare the students. We anticipated there would be glitches."

Evans had a simple conclusion about this year's testing: "The SBA is a much better test than the CMTs."

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