Students embark on practice run for new testing

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Montana students have put down their No. 2 pencils for keyboards to take the new Smarter Balanced test.

Third- through eighth-graders along with high school juniors will put Smarter Balanced to the test in a practice run to uncover any challenges with technology or content.

The window for Montana schools to start the Smarter Balanced field test opened Tuesday. Many districts had planned to begin testing March 18, but Smarter Balanced delayed field testing to ensure the computerized assessment had all the tools in place, and in working order, to accommodate students with disabilities.

As of Tuesday, Rich Lawrence, information technology director at Kalispell Public Schools, said testing has gone smoothly with a few tests timing out — out of about 200 students testing. This was one of the main concerns Lawrence had about the new test, which relies on servers  outside Montana.

He said if a test times out, progress should be saved and students can start where they left off. Lawrence said on any given day, a maximum of 300 students at any school can test at the same time to reserve bandwidth for regular classroom instruction.

“We have been preparing since last fall and beefed up our technology infrastructure,” Lawrence said. “And it wasn’t easy.”

The Smarter Balanced Assessment, which is aligned to the Common Core Standards, will test students in English and math. Since this year is a field test, students’ scores won’t count toward federal adequate yearly progress.

The Common Core Standards were adopted by Montana in November 2011. Instruction and curriculum choices used to teach the standards are relegated to a local and state level, but some groups such as the Montanans Against Common Core say there is not enough local authority.

The Smarter Balanced test will replace the current state standardized Criterion-Referenced Test next school year. This year, grades four, eight and 10 will take the science portion of the Criterion-Referenced Test for the last time.

Questions on the new tests are expected to involve more extensive writing and critical thinking problems. Unlike the Criterion-Referenced Test, content areas are not timed and it is estimated a student could complete the Smarter Balanced Assessment in about three hours.

Since most school districts do not have a one-to-one computer-to-student ratio, school administrators have created schedules that will cycle students through testing at various times.

A total of 2,260 students will be tested in Kalispell Public Schools before the testing window ends in May.

Computerized testing has compelled many districts to upgrade bandwidth and routers or purchase additional computers according to Office of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Dennis Parman.

“For the most part, schools have been more ready than what they thought they were,” Parman said.

State school Superintendent Denise Juneau said she understood the financial strain put on some districts.

“The governor proposed a budget with a $6 million request for technology to be granted to schools in the last session of the Legislature and the Legislature decreased it to $1 million. That came out to $2.40 per student,” Juneau said. “You certainly can’t buy a computer for $2.40.”

Parman added that some rural districts could struggle in terms of tech support.

“Some schools don’t have the capacity to have someone on staff to help — or even a budget to hire or contract someone to do that,” Parman said.

The Office of Public Instruction has contracted with Montana Educational Technologists Association to reach out to districts and guide them through the process. Lawrence is the regional director for that effort.

Technology aside, the Smarter Balanced test will cost the same or less than the Criterion- Referenced Test, Juneau said.

“We spent about $2 million on assessments,” Juneau said. “And we’re getting a much better product.”

Tests will become computer-adaptive in the 2015-16 school year. This means questions will adjust in difficulty based on an individual student’s ability throughout the test and schools should get a clearer picture where students excel and where they need work, Juneau said. Juneau said another plus is that states will be able time to make an apples-to-apples comparison on a national scale.

This detailed data collection may give teachers a clear picture of where students are in their learning, but Montanans Against Common Core asserts that the data mining intrudes on student privacy and  Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The group’s website has posted an “opt-out” form for parents who want to waive their children’s participation.

Juneau and Parman said the Office of Public Instruction cannot give school districts permission to accept opt-out requests from parents, just as they couldn’t for the Criterion-Referenced Test.

“The state test that we give is required by federal law,” Juneau said.

Parman advised districts to continue providing necessary student support during testing and accommodate absent students with make-up test dates. Parman said it is to everyone’s advantage to participate in the field test in preparation for next spring’s assessments when the results count.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at

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