March 2, 2015

Online exams usher in a new era of statewide testing

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Unlike most previous Colorado state-mandated exams, the new PARCC standardized tests will be administered online.

Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

Unlike most previous Colorado state-mandated exams, the new PARCC standardized tests will be administered online.

ASPEN — The long-anticipated replacement test for the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program has arrived.

The new standardized tests were developed by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and they’ll occupy a chunk of classroom time for public school students in grades three through 11 during March. The state-mandated assessments will test the same skills as TCAP and CSAP have for years — language arts and math — but will be different in several key respects.

First, they’ll be harder. The tests are part of an overall effort at the state level to prepare Colorado students for 21st-century colleges and careers, and the exams emphasize critical-thinking and analytical skills.

Second, the tests will be electronic. Students in the Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts will take the exams on computers, mostly Google Chromebooks provided by the schools. The state is making paper tests available for students who may not have the requisite computer skills or districts that don’t have enough computers available, but both local districts believe they have sufficient wireless capacity and laptops to administer the task electronically.

“These assessments are a totally different animal,” said Julia Roark, assistant superintendent for the Aspen schools. “These tests involve a lot of navigation on the actual testing site, they use a lot of different tools.”

School officials said this amounts to harder but also more interesting and engaging exams.

“Kids are solving multi-step problems that require real reasoning,” said Diana Sirko, superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.

Moreover, Sirko added, the online testing environment makes the tests more visual and interactive. (To try a practice test, click here.)

“It’s just more compatible with what kids do nowadays,” she said.

The new online exams have presented technological hurdles for many school districts, but Aspen and Roaring Fork officials say they're ready to roll out the PARCC tests.

Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

The new online exams have presented technological hurdles for many school districts, but Aspen and Roaring Fork officials say they're ready to roll out the PARCC tests.

School officials believe the new assessments will both engage students and yield valuable information about their learning. But 2015 is a “baseline year” for the new exams, and it will take a few years before educators can see trends and patterns in the results.

As the results add up, however, local educators look forward to comparing their students’ performance with children across Colorado and beyond. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers is a consortium of 12 states and the District of Columbia that contracted with Pearson Assessment to develop the new exams. The tests are aligned with the Common Core, a set of standards and learning goals adopted by more than 40 states in an effort to elevate academic performance nationwide.

The Common Core, along with the testing and accountability measures that have accompanied it, has become controversial in many school districts and states. But local school officials don’t anticipate much pushback from students or parents about the upcoming tests.

The biggest challenge facing school officials is simply administering the exams — scheduling the time, testing the technology, preparing students, coordinating with state officials and so on. Tom Heald, director of curriculum for the Aspen School District, is reminded of the original launch of CSAP, which included a flurry of paperwork, preparation and stress but eventually yielded student performance data that improved actual instruction.

“From that actually came some really interesting processes, a system of evaluation,” Heald said. “We have gotten better in our ability to analyze the data.”

For the moment, however, Aspen and Roaring Fork school officials are focused mainly on a successful rollout of the tests. Aspen will do all of its testing between today and March 20. Roaring Fork will have a slightly longer window, from today to April 3. This does not mean, in either district, that any single student will test throughout the period but that the different grades and groups of children will each take their turn over the course of the window. Time also will be set aside for makeup exams.

In all, according to Rick Holt, Roaring Fork’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, a typical student will actually test for somewhere between four and six total hours.

In both districts, individual schools have flexibility in how they schedule the tests. For example, Aspen High School plans to do all of its testing in two days. Aspen Elementary, on the other hand, will spread its exams more thinly over three days per week for two weeks.

Given the additional time being devoted to the state-required tests, Heald said, Aspen Middle School has chosen to suspend some of its mid-year, locally administered Scantron tests.

The upcoming exams represent the first round of the tests in 2015, and students will be tested on the learning units that they’ve digested up to this point in the academic year. In May, there will be another round of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests to evaluate students’ end-of-year mastery of language arts and math.

“In totality, we’ll be spending more time on testing than we had previously,” Heald said. “That’s not to say we didn’t do a lot of testing previously. We did. We’re just doing more now.”

Aspen Journalism’s education desk is collaborating with The Aspen Times on schools coverage. This story was published in the Times on March 2, 2015.

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