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State To Replace Mastery Test With Computerized, Personalized Test In Two Years

Goodbye To Bubbled-In Answers; New Tests Will Be Interactive, Use Audio, Video

By KATHLEEN MEGAN

July 15, 2012

If all goes as planned, the Connecticut Mastery Test, bubbled in with pencil on paper, will become a relic of the past in two years, replaced by a new, more customized online testing system.

By the 2014-15 school year, state officials hope to retire the mastery test, which is taken by third- through eighth-graders, and its companion, the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, which is taken in 10th grade.

In its place will be computerized tests, essentially personalized for each student. As a student progresses through a test, the questions presented will vary depending on whether the student got previous questions right or wrong.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said that with the new tests under development by the federally funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium if a student gets a question wrong, "the system will provide other questions to try to get at what the underlying deficiency is."

The interactive test "adjusts to students' skills and deficiencies as it operates," he said. The number of questions students are given during a test also will vary depending on how they perform.

Pryor said the adaptive properties of the test will provide teachers with a "deeper diagnosis of what the student is struggling with, which most standardized assessments absolutely fail at currently, because if you get the question wrong, it doesn't ask you any more questions."

The new tests also will use different types of questions, including audio and video components, and, proponents say, assess a student's knowledge in deeper ways than possible before. The testing system also offers a series of mini-tests teachers can use throughout the school year to quiz students on their understanding and progress.

Complex Tasks,Critical Thinking

One of the most striking changes in the new tests will be the "performance task" questions in some cases multipart projects that require students to do some research, plot data points on a graph or use tools such as a ruler to construct an answer.

One sample performance task question asks students to read a short story and article, watch a video, review research statistics and then write an argumentative essay on their opinion of virtual schools.

Pryor said the purpose is to "ensure that we move beyond merely rote learning" and assess analytical and thinking skills.

"In the real world, the tasks that we are asked to perform in the workplace or in life do not involve bubble sheets," Pryor said. "They involve research, analysis and the use of items that we find in the real world."

Connecticut is one of 27 states working with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Curriculum to develop a test for English language arts and mathematics aligned to the Common Core State Standards national curriculum standards adopted by 45 states, including Connecticut in 2010.

Two years ago, the federal government granted $350 million in federal Race to the Top funds to two multistate consortia Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers to develop new testing systems rooted in the core standards.

In May, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the new tests will be "an absolute game changer in public education, but we need to get it right. We need input from teachers and the public, and we need to make sure that the tests provide parents and teachers with the information they need to focus and personalize instruction for all children."

Pryor said that the test, which will have a bank of more than 35,000 questions, is still very much in the development stages and that it's not clear whether a computerized version will be ready to go in 2014.

The Smarter Balanced consortium estimates that the new test will cost $19.81 per student. State officials said they could not provide a comparative cost figure for the mastery and academic performance tests, but said the tests cost $24.5 million last year, with about a quarter of that covered by the federal government.

Renee Savoie, an education consultant with the state Department of Education, said Connecticut's standardized tests are expensive because they contain many questions with open-ended, written answers along with the bubbled-in responses.

"My understanding is we're not going to be spending more on the Smarter Balanced test," Savoie said.

Teaching To The Test?

Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston-based organization that is sharply critical of standardized tests, said, "We think for a lot of money, energy and hoopla, we'll end up with a marginally improved standardized test that won't solve the problems caused by the misuse and overreliance on standardized tests that we now see."

Neill said the new tests including the mini-tests are likely to lead to even more teaching that is based on test preparation, rather than curriculum.

But Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, D.C., said the computerized test will be "a huge step forward," and the mini-tests will offer valuable information to students, teachers and parents before the end-of-the year "summative" test.

"The end of the year is not the time you want to find out that the student hadn't mastered things from many months ago," she said.

Jacobs, who taught fourth grade, also said the test's adaptability to a student's skills is helpful. "There's nothing worse than watching a student who doesn't know the first couple of questions and then they are so demoralized, they can't keep focused on it," she said.

Neill's colleague, Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the center for fair testing, said computers offer "tremendous potential to get beyond simple-minded bubble-in tests."

He said the consortium is promising that the new tests "are going to measure much more than regurgitation that they will assess higher-level thinking skills, problem-solving." While that sounds impressive, he said, "the devil will be in the details." Too often, computerized tests are simply an online version of the typical "low-level multiple-choice test," he continued, because that's the cheapest way to do it.

An advantage of the computerized tests, Schaeffer said, is that the scores are often available more quickly. In Connecticut, students take the mastery tests in March, but the scores aren't released until July. This year's mastery test scores were recently delivered to cities and towns but have been under embargo until the state releases its report. Pryor wouldn't say exactly when that will happen, but he said it will be soon.

Several education professionals said they expect students will prefer the computerized tests.

"Students don't have any sort of phobia. It's what they've known, what they're comfortable with," Jacobs said. "We wouldn't be promising it would be just like a video game experience, but it's hard to think of anything less fun than sitting down with a bubble sheet and a test booklet."

For more information on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, including PowerPoint presentations with sample questions, go to http://www.smarterbalanced.org/smarter-balanced-assessments/

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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