The high-tech successor to California's annual STAR exam has been deployed, and the informal verdicts are in. Mastery of online graphing tools and directional arrows is no sweat, even for students who don't use computers at home. But the content is more challenging -- and at times intriguing.
That's all by design. California and 21 other states have begun trials of the new Smarter Balanced standardized tests that will show not only how much and how well students have learned, but also how well they think and solve problems -- all goals of the Common Core State Standards.
Students are no longer bubbling in circles on a multiple-choice answer sheet. Instead, they're clicking-and-dragging, matching, graphing, filling in boxes and writing reasoned essays in the online-only tests. This year, they're saving time, too. Instead of spending a week or two on state testing, the field test of the new model takes two days of three to four hours each.
At Los Cerros Middle School in Danville, some students preferred the new test to STAR. "One of the kids said, 'I was into it!' which to me meant they were more engaged," said Terry Koehne, a spokesman for San Ramon Valley Unified.
Everywhere, the ramp-up to test day has been a herculean task. Districts had to make sure they had enough bandwidth and computers for the online tests. Teachers had to be trained and students prepared to decipher the problems and navigate the screens.
San Ramon knew bandwidth would be a challenge, Koehne said, and the district has been focusing on it. One way of managing this year is to stagger testing, with some schools not starting until late April.
After the first day of testing, he said, technology was performing well. "The network did great."
Oakland's school district spent $3.5 million on 8,600 Dell computers for its 35,000 students, said Information Technology Officer John Krull. Still, he anticipates challenges getting students and teachers logged in to the state test-taking portal when the test sessions begin April 9, and worries about the possibility of its network crashing when so many computers are on the Internet at the same time.
"We might have to tell the photography classes, for example, not to be uploading Photoshop images while we are administering the test," Krull said.
Like many other districts, Palo Alto Unified started preparing for the tests a few years ago. The district upgraded its wired network to include an ultrafast backbone, 10 gigabits per second at each site and a 1 gigabit per second Internet connection, chief technology officer Ann Dunkin said. Her staff ran trials, simulating having 3,000 students in one classroom taking the test. "We're confident that our network is up to the testing," she said.
Indeed, testing the first classes at Palo Verde, Addison and Fairmeadow elementary schools went smoothly, testing director Diana Wilmot said.
The window for field-testing the new assessments, developed by the multistate Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, lasts until June 6. Berkeley and Oakland districts begin testing the second week of April. The tests are being administered to students in grades 3 through 8, and also to 11th-graders.
But none of the exams really count. This year, the students are just testing the tests in English, math or both subjects, about half the length of real tests that will be given next year.
And, to the disappointment of teachers, students, administrators and parents, they will never know how they did on the sample tests. The state is not releasing results it gathers after students hit the "submit" button. That's because the testing experts want to use the results to refine their exams, which they acknowledge are a still-imperfect measurement of student achievement. There will be no equivalent of STAR test results this year, nor any Academic Performance Index from the state.
"That is one thing the students are asking," said Principal Julie Howard at Robert Sanders Elementary in San Jose. "They want to know the results. We all would like to know."
Oakland's Krull also said even though students have had access to practice tests, it still may prove challenging from a hand-eye coordination standpoint.
"For example, to answer No. 5 on a math question, you don't simply type the number 5," Krull said. " You click on the number and then drag it to a box."
He said in the fifth grade test there is a section that requires the student to draw a rectangle on a grid using the computer track pad.
"My staff, the technology staff, was having a tough time making that rectangle," Krull said. "So it's not just filling in bubbles."
In one part, the new test asks students to write a multiple-paragraph essay, citing evidence from sources provided to support their arguments. Such challenges are posed even to elementary students. At Robert Sanders Elementary in San Jose, fourth-graders in Kiki Korakis' class pondered questions like "explain the two ways the U.S. government protected the Grand Canyon" and were asked to use details from a passage they read to support their answers.
The idea is to test students' ability to synthesize information.
"We're very excited about the Common Core and the ability to assess it in a ... way that engages kids and uses technology that is part of their world," Koehne of San Ramon said. From what he's seen and heard, students "were very, very focused and pretty well spent afterward."
Staff writers Theresa Harrington and Doug Oakley contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.