June 24, 2018
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Will Maine schools teach deeper learning with Common Core? Will a new exam test it?

Nell Gluckman | BDN
Nell Gluckman | BDN
Elsa Theobald and Sidney Young, students at the Miles Lane School, took a Smarter Balanced field test on Monday, April 28. They are among 25,000 students in Maine to take these exams this spring, which will help the testing company refine the questions for when the tests count next year.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff

Gov. Paul LePage ignited a firestorm of controversy last year when his administration unveiled a report card system for the state’s public schools that boiled each school’s performance down to a letter grade.

The Maine Department of Education is preparing to release the second generation of those school report cards in the coming weeks. The same formula will be used to compute each school’s grade — combining measures of standardized test performance, participation and recent improvement, along with graduation rates. The report card itself, however, will include additional information about each school, including student poverty rates and teacher experience and education levels, that didn’t appear on last year’s report cards.

“Although some people have been critical because it’s so simple, that’s why many people like it, because it’s so simple,” Rachelle Tome, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, said of the grading system.

While this spring’s report cards will be only the second round, they also will be the last of their kind because of a confluence of changes set to take full effect in Maine schools and schools throughout the U.S. starting next school year.

Teachers in Maine have begun to teach English, writing and math based on a new set of expectations, the Common Core State Standards. And next school year is the first when students’ mastery of those standards will be tested.

Since students will take a brand new exam under development by a consortium of more than 20 states, the Smarter Balanced assessment, the test results won’t be comparable to past exam scores for purposes of complying with federal school accountability laws — or developing a new round of school report cards that, in part, judge students’ year-to-year improvement on standardized tests.

“Those are all big changes for educators and students and families alike,” said Tome. “It just seems natural that we would have a reset and begin to build from there.”

New, common standards

The Common Core State Standards, which specify the English and math skills students should know at each grade level, are the first set of academic expectations that have been shared by the bulk of U.S. states.

Though a handful of states are debating measures to delay the standards’ implementation or drop them altogether, the expectations have been adopted for the students and schools in 44 states and Washington, D.C. Only Indiana has dropped the standards after adopting them.

The Common Core sets the bar — with teachers and local school districts deciding how to meet it — and the new standards are widely considered more rigorous. They’re designed to emphasize not only mastery of core knowledge but application of that knowledge through critical thinking and problem solving — commonly called “deeper learning.”

“I think that the Common Core causes the focus to be tighter on specific skills,” said Karla DeMaris, who teaches freshman-level English at Penquis Valley High School in Milo. “With the Common Core, it really seems that they’re saying, ‘You’re going to teach your students how to write. Well, focus on these types of writing.’”

While the standards are numerous, they overlap, and a single lesson can touch on several standards, DeMaris said.

“When I set out lesson plans, so far, they’ve given me quite a bit of flexibility,” she said.

The standards are new, but using them in everyday teaching isn’t the most significant change in store for Maine teachers, said Amanda Cooper, who teaches eighth-grade English and social studies at Gorham Middle School.

“When you have to determine a student’s level of proficiency toward that standard, that’s an entirely different conversation,” she said.

New, different test

That’s a change that many Maine students and teachers are getting a taste of this spring as 25,000 students participate in a trial run of the Smarter Balanced assessment. Across the nation, 2 million students have completed field tests. And even in schools where field tests aren’t happening, teachers and students have been familiarizing themselves with the new format by using online practice tests and sample test items.

“It’s helping schools get a better sense of how they would plan to provide the assessments because this is a new world,” said Tome.

So far, it’s gone smoothly, she said. “There are little quirks, and that’s part of the reason we’re giving the field tests.”

Students take the Smarter Balanced tests on a computer, and the test is computer-adaptive, so the difficulty of questions changes based on student responses to preceding questions. The test, given in grades 3-8 and 11, also is designed to be more challenging because it tests mastery of academic standards that are generally more demanding than existing standards that vary by state.

“It takes a few years for all of this to catch up and work,” said DeMaris. “The teachers know the first several years of this testing could very well be a disaster because the kids don’t have the background yet. It definitely is very challenging.”

One area in which students might have little background is in critical thinking and problem solving.

DeMaris said that students’ “critical thinking and their critical reading skills really aren’t there. Nobody’s spent a lot of time teaching them specifically how to read critically.”

All in all, she said, “I think it will be a very good thing.”

Deeper thinking, application

Those critical thinking and problem-solving skills that require deeper thinking are skills the generation of standardized tests that took hold following the 2002 passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law have not emphasized. That’s something the two, multi-state consortia developing Common Core-aligned standardized exams have pledged to change.

A 2012 Rand Education study rated 17 state standardized tests, including the NECAP taken by Maine students, for intellectual rigor. Publicly released test items at the low end of the scale required simple recall, while items on the upper end required abstract thinking and extended analysis and investigation.

Based on the sample test items, the researchers concluded that just 3-10 percent of U.S. students took at least one standardized test that stressed deeper learning.

A similar analysis of sample items from the Smarter Balanced assessment determined about 70 percent of test items were on the upper end of the “depth of knowledge” scale.

“Based on these estimates, Smarter Balanced specifications portend a dramatic upward shift in intellectual rigor and toward deeper learning,” said the researchers, from the University of California, Los Angeles’ National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.

But to what end?

Whether it’s a superior test or not, the Smarter Balanced assessment will be a departure from what teachers and students are familiar with, said Cooper, who also sits on the board of the Maine Education Association.

Cooper said she worries that some of the Common Core standards and the Smarter Balanced tests are so rigorous that they’re not age-appropriate.

“We shouldn’t be using the data from that for any number of years,” she said. “We should not use the data for anything other than to inform us about, are the standards appropriate, and is this test an accurate measure of their proficiency toward those standards?”

But the state soon will be required to use student test results as a component in teacher performance evaluations under the terms of Maine’s federal waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. And Smarter Balanced scores ultimately will factor into whether schools are meeting standards overall under federal law.

If LePage’s school report cards continue — the next ones wouldn’t come out until fall 2015 at the earliest — they’ll also be based on Smarter Balanced scores.

At some point, it becomes too much testing with test scores used to determine too much, Cooper said, and it’s not necessarily useful.

“We should be marking our students’ growth. Good teachers already do that,” she said. “If you sit these kids down and you test them over and over, to what end?”

The Smarter Balanced test will offer teachers “formative” testing materials they can use throughout the year to determine students’ proficiency and the progress being made.

The “summative” test, to be given in the spring, is meant “to provide a picture of how the school is doing,” said Tome.

“If children are exposed to the format as a regular part of their instructional program, then it’s not going to be as stressful or unknown,” she said. “You’re actually creating a stressful environment if you’re doing ‘drill and kill’ two weeks before the test.”

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.


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