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Alaska aims to shift barrage of standardized school tests from paper to computers

Jerzy Shedlock

On Tuesday, upperclassmen attending high schools in Alaska’s largest city will have a second chance to pass tests needed to secure diplomas. If they don’t make the grade, they'll have another shot next spring, when their 10th-grade peers take the so-called exit exam for the first time. Also in April, younger students will hunch over state-mandated, standardized assessment tests. But in the coming years, the pile of paper tests may shift to computer screens.

Starting Oct. 1, juniors and seniors will not attend their normal classes. Instead, they will file classrooms for one of three parts of the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam (HSGQE), commonly called the exit exam. They are required to retake the test at least once a year until they meet proficiency standards in math, reading and writing.

Later this year, the roundup will occur once more, as 10th graders and those who did not pass earlier will take the three tests. Younger high school students will actually take two tests at once -- sort of. Students filling in ovals during the exit exam are, at the same time, answering questions for the state’s Standard Based Assessment (SBA) exam, or vice versa.

“Students get two sets of scores back,” said Chief Academic Officer Mike Graham, “but it’s one test.”

The Standard Based Assessment, instigated for grades three through 10, measures whether Alaska students are learning and retaining lessons. Standards Based Assessments and the exit exam are similar. Both measure basic skills, but their purposes differ.

Summative versus formative

Standard Based Assessment tests began in spring 2005. Administrators refer to the SBA as a summative test, gauging whether students are on course and making yearly improvement. Down the line, it gauges college readiness.

The tests can measure whether students are falling behind or outperforming their peers. However, the testing for grades three through 10 occurs in the spring, and teachers have to wait until summer to see the results, and they can’t use them to shift lessons in the classroom. 

There are “formative tests” that allow teachers to change their methods as the school year progresses. Teachers of kindergarten through eighth grade dole out universal screenings three times a year. Only the youngest bunch of students up fourth graders used to participate in a reading exams. But starting this school year, four additional grades are taking reading and math tests.

And more changes are coming. School districts statewide are prepping to replace the Standard Based Assessment altogether. Smarter Balanced Assessments will fill that standardized-testing role.

The “Smarter” tests are intended to push the Anchorage School District into the future using online, adaptive technology. Questions that pop up on the computer screen during Smarter tests can be adjusted during the test to make them easier or harder based on the student’s ability, said Jane Stuart, the district’s executive director of assessment and evaluation.

“That will be a huge advantage,” Stuart said. “There are still a lot of questions, but we’ll continue learning about it over the course of the next year, and preparing to administer it.”

Aligning with Common core standards

Smarter tests are aligned with the state’s common-core standards, which ASD is entrenched in implementing for a second year. Officials say the changes are similar to federal standards, though slightly different. For example, standardized tests often need to be changed for rural students, as common questions about stoplights and sidewalks are unfamiliar to Alaskans living off the road system. Such questions were removed from the exit exam after the first year it was used in the Bush.

The new assessment test may need the same changes, but a more pressing matter is logistics. On one hand, paper and pencils have never been a problem for schools. On the other, computers for hundreds of test-taking students may cause difficulties.

Anchorage School District, the largest in the state with nearly 49,000 students, has expressed an interest in participating in field studies for Smarter, said Erik McCormick, the state’s project coordinator for the Department of Education and Early Development.

The department hopes to get two schools in Anchorage to jump on board with the studies. The State of Alaska is paying to conduct the tests statewide, and the funds will cover up to 4,000 students in a cross-section of communities, McCormick said.

The funds also include a waiver for the SBA, so the schools participating in the studies will not need to administer both the SBA and its probable replacement.

Currently, the state is conducting dry runs of Smarter in rural towns. They’re trying to determine if the schools can handle the bandwidth, and whether there are enough computer devices to conduct the tests. At this point, the solution involves using a local cache service, so if the Internet connection is interrupted, students’ progress can be stored locally, McCormick said. Other states are handling the problem in similar ways, he added.

'Redundant' tests

In all, there are three required tests for high school this school year. But they are only taking two -- the two-in-one combination SBA and exit exam.

With all the academic realignment taking place, there’s been whispers of cutting the fat. During a mid-September joint Anchorage School Board and Assembly meeting, school district superintendent Ed Graff was asked whether administrators were willing to push back on federal and state demands, he responded that the implementation of the common core standards may make the exit exam “redundant.”

“The stakes are being raised,” Graham, the chief academic officer, said. “We’re looking at a whole new level of testing and what’s expected of students. We don’t want students taking two separate tests in the spring.”

Smarter could eventually replace the exit exam, he said. But getting rid of the state-mandated test is easier said than done; it would require a change of Alaska law, McCormick said.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms