Keep calm and carry on with the testing

Sarah Rosenberg

Today, the next wave of states will begin field-testing the Common Core–aligned assessments after a largely successful first phase. While Common Core critics like Valerie Strauss already declared the administration of the new field tests as “not so great,” journalists reported only a few technology glitches and a couple unclear directions—as was expected during this trial period. Overall, the field testing has served its purpose of providing students, teachers, schools and districts with the opportunity to give these next-generation assessments a test drive.

Libby Nelson with Vox recently reported, “In state after state, education officials say the same thing: There have been forgotten passwords, frozen computers, or discrepancies in how different browsers handle the test. On the whole, though: so far, so good.” For instance, the official blog of the Idaho State Department of Education posted a glowing story about the field tests earlier this month: they even quoted a fifth-grader from Blaine County who walked out of the testing room and said, “That test was fun!” While it might be tempting to dismiss the post as part of a carefully executed PR campaign, stories from local newspapers back it up. Cindy Johnstone, director of curriculum and assessment at Vallivue School District, told the Idaho Press-Tribune that some test administrators were particularly worried about technology capacity but that those concerns largely subsided after a successful administration. “Whenever there’s a new system in place, there’s a learning curve for everyone involved, but we feel it has gone very smoothly,” Johnstone said. “We anticipated slow Internet speeds and more technical issues, but we really just have not seen that.”

A similar story emerges in New Jersey. With over 60,000 students taking part in the PARCC field test, the Garden State had some of the highest levels of student participation. According to a recent news article, “a sampling of local officials said they, too, saw a process that went pretty much as expected, with some minor issues but not major problems.”

And that is, of course, a primary purpose of field-testing the new tests. Since there are no stakes attached to the field tests for students, teachers, schools, or districts, there is a strong incentive to identify and fix potential problems for Spring 2015, when most states will begin to attach stakes to the assessments. Paul Pineiro, Westfield’s assistant superintendent, noted some minor challenges, such as students being uncertain about entering numerical fractions into the online questions. “But in the end, that’s why we’re here—to field test it.”

Many educators also see the field test as an opportunity to align their curriculum and instruction to the content and rigor of the Common Core. School administrators in Ohio, for instance, said that “what the exams require students to do may call for significant adjustments in the way course material is taught.” And in California’s Pajara Valley Unified School District, testing coordinator Frances Basich Whitney said the tests reflect higher and better expectations for students: “More relevance, more problem solving, more critical thinking—we’re getting what we’ve been asking for 30 years.” While the first wave of field tests garnered some expected coverage of isolated bumps, the process of “testing the test” to better understand, develop, and deliver these next-generation assessments continues to receive positive reviews.

Sarah Rosenberg is a policy analyst on the Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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