Testing, testing...1, 2, 3: Part 2

Marsha Sutton

Students in grades 3-8, and grade 11, have been spending a good part of the merry month of May taking standardized tests ordered this year by the state under a new system of testing known by the cumbersome name of Smarter Balanced.

At the San Dieguito Union High School District, students in grades 7, 8 and 11 are taking Smarter Balanced assessments. Students in grades 8 and 10 are also being tested in science.

I recently watched about 30 eighth-grade students at Earl Warren Middle School take a Smarter Balanced math test in the school’s computer lab. It was fascinating, seeing students plugged into their electronic devices, taking tests in a Brave New World sort of way.

Wandering around at the beginning of the test, I noticed that each computer screen featured a different starting question. No copying possible.

More interesting were the test questions.

On one question, kids were shown an example of the steps one hypothetical student used to solve a problem, and then were asked to indicate how the student calculated the problem wrong.

In which step was the first mistake? The second? How should the problem be solved? Interesting questions.

What’s cool about Smarter Balanced is the ability of the test to adapt to student input using what’s called Computer Adaptive Testing. This allows the test to adjust to a student’s ability to answer the questions correctly.

In other words, each student gets a different follow-on question based on how well they do on the previous question. If they answer correctly, the computer system then asks a different question than if the student answers incorrectly.

Basing the difficulty of future questions on previous answers provides a more accurate measurement of student achievement, the SBAC website states.

According to, the computer adaptive system gauges how well each student meets the requirements of the test ‘blueprint,” which will select two questions out of perhaps a dozen on fractions, for example, that assess basic ability.

With correct answers, the system then takes the student to higher level questions. Students who answer challenging questions correctly receive higher scores.

Students drag, drop, manipulate, complete graphs and charts, write short answers, pick the best answer (not necessarily the right one) … in other words, become engaged with their learning.

I liked it. And so did the students I spoke with.

“It’s more interesting, more than just multiple choice,” said Aliza, an Earl Warren eighth-grader.

“There were a lot of tests,” said Leah, also an EWMS eighth-grader. But she said it was not overwhelming.

She added that the classroom preparation was minimal, and the few practice tests, she said, were useful.

Defending your work

Earl Warren principal Adam Camacho and SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt both like the new assessments, which are based on Common Core State Standards.

Schmitt said Common Core curriculum looks more like high school AP and honors classes, and the Smarter Balanced tests are modeled after Advanced Placement tests, reflecting more rigorous standards.

Previous assessments focused more on memorization and the ability to recall content, he said, while these tests assess critical thinking and ask students to apply learning in new ways through analysis, synthesis and inquiry-based problem-solving.

“They must defend their work and communicate their thinking,” Schmitt said, which better prepares them for college and career.

He also said the SAT and ACT tests are now aligned to Common Core.

That many of the test questions integrate math with English/language arts was another positive feature, they both noted.

Camacho said the computer-based, interactive tests are more kid-friendly and engaging.

Earl Warren serves about 700 students in grades 7 and 8, and Camacho reported five opt-outs.

Although comparisons cannot be made with previous standardized tests, educators do expect performance scores to be lower than what students and parents have come to expect, due to the newness of the material and incomplete teacher familiarity with Common Core.

They both stressed that these tests are only one of many ways to assess student achievement.

There are no penalties (yet) for schools that don’t administer the tests, but Schmitt said this year’s test information will provide a baseline for next year when the state hopes to have in place an accountability system, complete with rankings or school achievement indicators of some sort.

He said this year’s results would be good feedback for students and teachers – to learn how well the new standards are being taught and how well students are learning the material.

“It also helps prepare the kids for AP tests,” he added.

At a news conference, Tom Torlakson, California’s state superintendent of public instruction, called the tests “an academic check-up.”

Despite SDUHSD parent meetings and Schmitt’s frequent columns on the subject, many parents remain uninformed about the shift to Common Core and its new assessments.

Schmitt identified three primary reasons why Common Core seems misunderstood. He said the benefits have not been clearly communicated, teachers need more training, and – in a word – politics.

Common Core has become so politicized that its noble purpose and its cooperative development by business, industry, professionals and government leaders across all political spectrums, have become lost in translation.

There are very good reasons why Common Core matters. [See Part One, last week.] Teaching children how to think, and not just memorize boring facts and formulas, is a novel approach that is a long time coming.

Opting out of testing may be gaining traction across the country, and no one argues that parents don’t have the right to choose that for their children.

If parents want to opt their kids out, then fine. I’m all for nonviolent civil disobedience. But do it for the right reasons. Opposition to Common Core standards is not one of them.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at