BUCKSPORT, Maine — On Monday afternoon, 17 third-graders at the Miles Lane School each sat in front of a computer to take a language arts exam that is meant to test their reading and writing skills.
Some of the 8- and 9-year-olds quietly whispered to themselves as they read passages about hermit crabs and sea shells that appeared in a column on the left-hand side of their computer screens. Then, tapping on keys with one finger because they don’t know how to type yet, the students wrote their responses in boxes on the right side of the screen.
These third-graders are among the approximately 25,000 students across the state who are participating in the Smarter Balanced field tests being administered this spring at almost 200 schools in Maine.
The exams students are taking this spring are just pilot tests. Next spring, the Smarter Balanced assessment will replace the New England Common Assessment Program, a test that Maine students students in grades three through eight have been taking in reading and math each year since 2009. It will also replace the SAT, which has been used to test 11th graders since 2006.
Smarter Balanced spokesperson Jackie King said the pilot test serves two purposes.
“One is for test development,” she said. “This is our chance to put all of the questions in front of kids and see how well they perform.”
She added that 10 to 20 percent of the questions will likely be revised or eliminated if they are deemed inappropriate after the field tests are complete.
“The other big purpose is to provide a practice run for schools,” King said.
The Smarter Balanced assessments are administered on a computer program, while the NECAPs were taken on paper. This means schools will need to sort out an array of logistics, from making sure there are enough computers for all students to take the test in time, to teaching students how to use the program.
“We can see that our students are going to need to spend more time in the computer lab,” said Miles Lane School principal Christina Ellis. Though the school has traditionally begun teaching typing in third grade, Ellis said next year they plan to start teaching that curriculum in second grade to prepare students for the test.
Ellis also said that though she will never see her students’ results on this field test, students reported that it was very difficult.
On Monday’s exam, some questions instructed the third-graders to write responses that are “several paragraphs long.” The students were asked to read multiple sources to answer a single question and then cite which source they got their answer from.
“There’s a certain terminology that we’re going to have to teach so they know what is being asked,” said the students’ third-grade teacher, Ann Marancik.
For example, on a math test taken last week, students were asked to “calculate” for one question. Marancik said a student raised his hand and said he could not calculate because he didn’t have a calculator.
“There are things we need to iron out, so it’s really good we have the opportunity to do this,” Marancik said, referring to the field test.
“The kids are more comfortable even today than they were last week,” when they took the math test, she added.
Fifth- and seventh-graders at Bucksport Middle School have also participated in the field test, and except for several students who were absent during the testing, they are finished with the process. The middle school borrowed 50 laptops from Bucksport High School so that multiple classes could take the test at the same time.
Bucksport Middle School principal Ivan Braun said that though there were some technological glitches to be smoothed out, the structure and the timing of the test is an improvement on the NECAP.
“The expediency of these is a blessing so we can reflect on how the kids are doing fairly quickly and up our game,” he said. Principals and teachers will be able to see how students did on the Smarter Balanced assessment in a matter of weeks, while with the NECAP, results did not arrive for two to three months.
Braun said that overall the testing went well, but there was some anxiety going into it.
“It did interrupt some teaching,” he said. “But I think it will prove valuable for next year.”
Not everyone is in favor of the exams. Earlier this month, the Maine Education Association called for a moratorium on the use of new standardized tests.
“The MEA has concerns about the development, implementation, developmental appropriateness, over use of assessment, and use of assessment scores in evaluation of students and teachers,” the group said in a statement.
In another statement released soon after, education commissioner Jim Rier defended the tests.
“The State assessment given for a few hours each year is one of the many tools educators have to understand where students are and where they may need additional support in meeting these updated standards,” he said. “It should also be noted that the State assessment is required under federal law for school (not student) accountability.”