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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 8th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 5 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 5

New standardized testing debuts at area schools

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

The trial-and-error run of California’s newest way to gauge whether students are learning made its first pass through Santa Maria schools on April 7.

School districts have approximately five weeks to get all of their students tested through the Internet-based Smarter Balance tests, which, starting this year, are taking the place of STAR tests—a method that used a set of questions, No. 2 pencils, and Scantrons to test students in California for more than a decade.

Smarter Balance tests are a little more fluid than STAR tests: Whereas with STAR tests, all students got the same exact set of questions, Smarter Balance poses each question based on how students answered the previous question.

The big issues facing school districts are access to technology, getting students tested using something they’ve never used before, and staggering testing so that everyone in the school district isn’t using the Internet all at once.

“We don’t have enough bandwidth for 11,000 people to be on the Internet all at the same time,” said Maggie White, spokesperson for Santa Maria-Bonita School District. “It’ll smooth out, but the first go-’round, logistically, is a little rough.”

On April 7, Santa Maria-Bonita started testing sixth-graders throughout the district and seventh- and eighth-graders at some of the junior high schools. All grade levels and schools are scheduled to be tested at some point during the five-week testing period, except for over Spring Break. Students in the Orcutt Union School District also started testing on April 7 and are following a similar testing pattern. While Orcutt is using existing computer labs to conduct testing, Santa Maria-Bonita is using new Chrome Books, which are small laptops the district purchased specifically to help with Smarter Balance assessments and Common Core—a new set of education standards recently handed down by the state.

At the moment, though, Santa Maria-Bonita has had the Chrome Books for about a month, and with only 1,600 of the devices available for 11,000 students to use, there’s been a bit of a learning curve, not only for students, but also for the district and individual schools. Eventually, the district has plans to purchase another 2,000 of the devices.

White said students tried out practice tests last week and had trouble logging on to the state’s website. It took about three days for the state and the district to figure out what was going on. It was a frustrating three days, White said, but now that they know, it’s fine and they can move forward.

“It’s a process. That’s why it’s good that the score results aren’t being gathered,” White said. “This year, the state’s not doing any scoring; the state is using it to gather data.”

The state will evaluate this year’s test to see how things need to change for the coming years.

“It’s definitely a new-world order, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing,” White said. “As students get more familiar with the Chrome Books, as well as with the test itself, many of the logistical problems will be resolved.”

This year is a little different because not only is a new set of standardized tests being introduced in public schools, but also a new way of teaching a new set of state standards with textbooks that are literally “hot off the presses” for math. Language arts textbooks haven’t come down the pike yet, so schools are in limbo with old textbooks and new standards.

For instance, Santa Maria-Bonita has slowly been introducing the new Common Core math standards to teachers and students over the last year, but with math textbooks only recently published, the district hasn’t had a chance to pick one yet, and will conduct pilot testing of the new range of books during the 2013-2014 school year, before settling on one particular set of textbooks. Only some classrooms will be testing out the new books.

In the meantime, current math textbooks don’t necessarily align with the new standards, so the district is getting creative. The district’s math teachers conducted research on states that are ahead of California for implementing Common Core and settled on a set of math texts created by the state of New York that are available online. Teachers are being trained on those right now, and some teachers are already using them in the classroom.

“It’s a real shift,” White said, adding that the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, Olivia Bolaños, says it best: “‘Everyone just needs to keep moving forward … and we’ll get there together.’”