At an East San Jose high school, students react to new Common Core test

April 14, 2014

The students in John Daniels’ U.S. history class at James Lick High School in East San Jose are a smidgen of the tens of thousands of juniors who are taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium field test this spring. And their views of the new test on the Common Core State Standards are but a snapshot of many that the creators of the test and the state Department of Education will receive over the next two months.

But what they said last week, representative or not, would probably please the creators of the new assessment. As Glenn VanderZee, James Lick’s principal, observed, most of them “got it.”

Not necessarily the answers. Neither James Lick administrators nor the students will know how they did; as with all students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 in California and elsewhere, their tests won’t get scored. The purpose of the field test is to inform Smarter Balanced, a consortium of states that includes California, about the validity of the 20,000 questions that will be vetted and aspects of the computer-based technology that need tweaking.

In a classroom discussion and follow-up interviews, the James Lick students said they understood the nature of the new assessment – how it’s different from the California Standards Tests that they grew up taking – and why the new tests might be an improvement.

Desiree Jones Credit: John Fensterwald

“With this test, you had to make your point and explain your answer,” said Desiree Jones. “In the future, you may have to do the same thing – back up your claim –where you work. You can’t just say, ‘That’s good.’ You’ll need to say what you think and why.”

Citing evidence, defending a position

Desiree was referring to the performance assessment part of the test. It represents the biggest change from the state tests. Students were given four articles about a contemporary subject they could relate to. (EdSource agreed, as a condition of speaking to the students, not to discuss any specific questions on the field test.) They were asked to take a position, using evidence based on what they read. They could use a split screen to cut and paste from the articles – a task that some students found difficult to do, especially for math problems, using their portable Chromebooks  – and they could write as much and take as much time as they wanted.

“With this test,” Desiree said, “you had to put down reasons you chose a specific answer – not just fill in a bubble.”

“People want you to lead in the future,” with an ability to think for yourself, said Jazmine De La Cruz.

Teaching students to think critically is a principal goal of the Common Core standards. High school English Language Arts standards emphasize learning how to analyze informational texts. Math standards stress understanding the concepts behind the formulas. The Smarter Balanced tests reinforce these broader objectives. Several of the math questions asked students not just to give the right answer but also to explain their work. The reading questions required typing short answers.

Test prep in the past included a strategy for making an educated guess on multiple choice questions by eliminating answers that clearly didn’t make sense, raising the odds of filling in the right answer. Demanding short answers to questions forces students to read passages and do the math – not blow past with random answers.

Thumbs up on online test – with some reservations

Students said there were annoying aspects to doing a test on a computer, but overall they said they preferred it. They said it was cumbersome to type out a formula; they complained there was no scratch paper to solve math problems (actually, scratch paper is allowed, but a proctor on the first day misread the rules).

Cyril Garcia said that an online test should use touchscreen technology. This was a first generation test – “not really thought out,” he said. But Javier Cruz said that jobs in the future will demand more technology, so it’s important to prepare students for that with online tests.

Jesus Vargas. Credit: John Fensterwald

Desiree said she found online tests neither better nor worse, just different. At least initially, until the tests become routine, students will find that interesting, she said.

Jesus Vargas said with computer-based tests, students should get the results faster (that is Smarter Balanced’s intent). Results from state standardized tests were returned the following fall, too late to be of any use to students who wanted to know which areas they needed to improve, Jesus said.

Juniors at James Lick, as at most high schools, take a range of math courses reflecting their abilities and interest: Algebra II, Geometry, Calculus or nothing at all, since only two years of math are required to graduate.

Some of the students found the math section frustrating, since it included questions on a mix of disciplines – some hard, some easy and in no particular order.

“Geometry concepts are hard to remember,” said Daisy De La Cruz, who is now taking Calculus.

Desiree said, “In the past, questions went gradually from easy to hard. This one was jumbled.”

Field tests are designed to test the validity of questions, not simulate actual tests that students will take starting next year. As a result, there was an intentional randomness in the question selection and order that caught students by surprise. Questions ranged from pre-algebra they took in middle school to graphing problems in pre-calculus, students said.

Next year, that will change. Smarter Balanced is promising an adaptive assessment, an individualized test with questions based on a student’s correct or incorrect answers to previous questions. It will be an integrated exam, measuring a range of knowledge, said Deb Sigman, state deputy superintendent of public instruction and co-chair of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s executive board. It will count not only as a school accountability tool but also as a measure of an individual student’s readiness for entry-level, for-credit  college courses, she said. That will be an incentive for students to take it seriously.

Next year, all schools in the East Side Union High School District will switch from subject-specific math courses – Algebra, Geometry, Pre-Calculus – to Integrated Math, an option under Common Core. Integrated Math combines elements of algebra, geometry and statistics in a sequence of three increasingly challenging courses. So each subject should be fresh in students’ minds when they take the 11th grade Smarter Balanced math test, VanderZee said.

Way to reach disconnected students

James Lick has an overall Academic Performance Index of 674, nearly half its students are English learners and it ranks in the bottom fifth of scores on standardized tests. Daniels said he is “a fan of the Common Core for our population” and believes it is a way to engage students bored by traditional approaches to American history.

“Some kids in other demographics get skills, like critical thinking, outside of schools,” Daniels said. “We have to do it here so that students can learn to become problem solvers.”

Glenn VanderZee, principal of James Lick High. Credit: John Fensterwald.

VanderZee also is confident that Common Core standards will be a way to reach students who are disconnected from school. His observations after two years of watching students take the Smarter Balanced practice tests reaffirm his support. Paradoxically, some of his lowest-performing students seemed the most interested in the new test. They had the least to lose, he said, because in the past they didn’t have the skills to answer test questions.

“The previous state test took the approach, There is a correct answer, can you find it? This test focuses on them – their ability to come up with a response and defend it. It’s how we engage learners: What is your take?”

“Who complains about testing changes? The ones who did well on the previous test,” VanderZee said. “They did well on state tests as a point of pride. Now they have the most to lose, in terms of changes, and are reacting by saying, ‘You turned the rules on us.’”

John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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