Students struggle to get past instructions on practice tests

April 8, 2015

3rd graders reviewing the Smarter Balanced practice test at Bay Shore Elementary School in Daly City

Third-grade teacher Annie Long grappled with a new problem when her students reviewed the online practice test to prepare for the Common Core-aligned assessments they will be taking in a few weeks. The instructions were too complicated for many of them to understand.

The practice test instructions included words such as “scan” and “sources” – words that were unfamiliar to the majority of her class at Bayshore Elementary School in Daly City.

But they were not the only students struggling with these elements of the practice test. High school students in San Jose interviewed by EdSource Today also had difficulty understanding the instructions and how to navigate different sections of the test, as did 3rd-graders in Fresno.

The online practice test includes about 30 sample exercises of varying difficulty for each grade level in math and English language arts, according to the website of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed it and the end-of-the year assessments. Over 3 million students in grades 3 to 8 and 11 will take the required assessments this spring to measure their performance in these two subject areas.

Educators like Long worry that overly complicated instructions could interfere with students’ ability to get through the full battery of tests they will be taking over the next several weeks unless they have previously been given substantial help to understand them.

Students won’t receive a score on the practice test. But it gives them a preview of the types of test items they will see on the required Smarter Balanced assessments, which will be completely online for the first time.

Long asked her students to look at the instructions on the English Language Arts exercises and read them aloud.

Photo by Laurie Udesky/EdSource Today

Bayshore Elementary 3rd grader Elijah Ramirez reads instructions on the practice test.

“After you’ve reviewed the sources briefly scan the sources and questions that follow, then go back and review,” the instructions read.

She then tried to explain the instructions to the students. “‘Scan’ means to read something quickly to get the main idea,” she said, as she wrote “scan” on the board. “You’re just reading it quickly just to go, ‘What’s this about? Oh, it’s about dogs,’” she said as an example.

The practice test asked students to imagine that they’re a student researching the job of an astronaut. “You think an astronaut is an interesting job. You have found two sources about being an astronaut,” the instructions explained.  

“What does the word ‘sources’ mean?” Long asked. The room of 17 students fell silent, with many eyes peering intently at their computer screens.

“The student wants to be a what?” Long asked. “Astronaut!” came a chorus of responses. “So the student went out and found two sources. What do we think the word ‘source’ means,” Long asked again. “Facts?” asked one student.

“Sources are reading materials,” Long said. “What are some sources where we can learn about topics?” she asked a boy. “Books?” he asked. “What are some other sources?” Long asked. “Dogs,” said one student, as another suggested “Animals.”

“Dogs and animals are topics,” Long replied. She also asked the students to practice typing in the “notes” section of the online practice test, a section where students can take notes on the texts they read to remember the main points.

Her step-by-step review still eluded some students.

“I thought it was a little challenging to write the notes because it’s new,” 3rd-grader Catherine Posadas told a reporter at the end of class, referring to typing in the online “notes” section of the test. “I wasn’t sure what to do.”

At the end, Long asked students to give a thumbs up, sideways or down to show how they felt about the instructions. “I saw a lot of thumbs sideways, which means (students had a) ‘so-so understanding,’” she said afterwards.

“They’re not going to get it in one session,” said Long, who added that she had to go slowly through a lot of new vocabulary just so her students would understand the instructions.

Bayshore Elementary School District Interim Superintendent Audra Pittman said that it’s challenging enough for 3rd- graders to be able to put their thoughts into words to communicate verbally. The added chore of typing “is throwing another wrench in their thought process,” Pittman said, referring to the challenges they face taking the practice test.

In spring 2014, about 3 million California students took the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s online “field test.” The scores and results were not released to schools or the public. But the consortium used data from the field tests to make improvements, including tweaking the instructions, according to communications director Kelli Gauthier. She said she couldn’t describe the specific changes the consortium had made in the instructions, because a report about them has not been completed.

Laura Bolton, a teacher at William Saroyan Elementary in Fresno, who spoke to EdSource earlier about her students’ keyboard challenges, recently gave the Smarter Balanced midterms to her 3rd-graders. She said her students struggled with the instructions and added that they were not appropriate for the age of her students.

“It’s using vocabulary that we just don’t use,” she said. The language, she said, should be much more “kid-friendly.”

Vito Chiala, principal of Overfelt High School in San Jose, sought feedback from students to find out how the school could better prepare them for the required Smarter Balanced Assessments.

Three students who took the English and math practice test also found the instructions challenging. Ninth-grader Maria Vargas, for example,  said she didn’t know how to make the online calculator work on the test.

Photo by Laurie Udesky/EdSource Today

Overfelt High School students (from left to right) Maria Vargas, Jazmin Martinez and Esmerelda Corona share their experiences of taking the Smarter Balanced practice test.

“I needed someone to explain the directions to me,” she said. “I had to keep raising my hand and asking ‘how do you do this?’”

Chiala gave students an hour to complete each subject area. But 11th-grader Esmerelda Corona said she could not decipher from the test instructions how many sections she had to complete, and she didn’t realize there were more sections until after finishing the first one.

“I went ‘Oh, I’m done,’” Corona said. “That was after 20 minutes, and I probably had two sections to go.”

Long, the Bayshore Elementary teacher, said her students spent a previous class learning how to log in to the practice test. So when they sat down to take it again, they were able to log in quickly and didn’t have problems. Her district is planning more training for teachers to help students take the practice test and she’s since developed more lessons to mirror the format and content of both the math and English language arts sections of the practice test.

“They were really having to remember many different things (from the instructions) in order to do just one task,” she said. To make sure they are fully prepared for the Common Core assessments, “I’m going to have to break it down and show them, so they’re not going to get overwhelmed.”


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