TWIN FALLS — For schools, springtime means standardized testing.
It’s something that often makes students groan, as they face about eight hours of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests.
But there are helpful outcomes, educators say: a better sense of where students are doing well and struggling, and an opportunity to adjust what’s taught in classrooms.
“It’s a good measure for us as far as how we’re doing as a school,” said Keelie Campbell, principal at Vera C. O’Leary Middle School in Twin Falls.
Across Idaho, public schools were allowed to start testing students March 20. They must wrap up by May 26.
It’s the third year scores count on the new tests, which replaced the old Idaho Standards Achievement Tests.
Tests are created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, an agency supported by about 15 states, including Idaho.
They align with Common Core Standards, which Idaho adopted in 2011 for kindergarten through 12th grades.
Third through eighth-graders, plus 10th graders, take English/language arts and math tests. It’s optional for schools to test ninth-graders.
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Students aren’t just answering multiple choice questions. They’re required to use critical thinking skills and complete performance tasks.
Plus, tests are adaptive, meaning the difficulty of questions changes depending on a student’s responses.
Standardized tests are just one piece of data, said Janet Avery, curriculum director for the Jerome School District.
With testing, it’s like taking someone’s temperature when they go to a doctor, she said. “It really gives us a gauge of where that student is at that moment.”
Here are more details about how testing works:
When are students testing?
Across the Magic Valley, many individual schools set their own testing schedule.
In Twin Falls, O’Leary Middle School is in its fourth and final week. Each grade level takes one test per week.
The schedule helps to reduce student fatigue and maintain instructional time, Campbell said.
In Cassia County, the testing schedule is particularly challenging at White Pine Elementary School in Burley, which has more than 900 fourth through sixth-graders.
The school plans to use the entire testing window.
Students are using a computer lab, as well as four sets of Chromebook laptops in their classrooms.
In Jerome, schools typically aim for students to take one or two tests per week.
“Testing season can always get tiring just because of the length of the test,” Avery said. “Most of the students are able to test within two hours, but some take longer.”
When will results come back?
Campbell expects to see results within 10 days after testing is done. Some Magic Valley schools, though, including O’Leary, are already seeing unofficial results start to trickle in.
In past years, educators across Idaho were concerned with how long it took to get test results, said Debbie Critchfield, spokeswoman for the Cassia County School District and a member of the Idaho Board of Education.
Especially because some teachers were already frustrated by the tests, “I think the lateness of getting the data muddied the conversation in general,” she said.
Idaho has a contract with vendor American Institutes for Research, which handles disseminating the results.
Critchfield said she and other state education officials had a conversation a couple of years ago with the vendor to ask for a faster turnaround and to ensure data is in an easy-to-understand format.
Last year, she said, results came back much more quickly.
How are results used?
It’s “really beneficial” to get results back before school’s out for the summer, Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said.
That allows educators have a chance to review test scores and for the information to be distributed to students and parents while school’s still in session.
Scores help educators gauge which students may need accelerated instruction or extra help.
Plus, it helps teachers figure out, “Is our curriculum doing what we need it to do?” Campbell said, and to refine instructional strategies.
But that doesn’t happen overnight.
“The statewide summative test isn’t specifically designed to provide the information that would help a teacher the very next day change her instruction,” Critchfield said.
Marion Johnston, a sixth-grade math teacher at O’Leary, said she uses test results to determine which concepts — such as one-step equations — she needs to spend more time on with students.
In Jerome, Horizon Elementary School is already done with testing and is starting to get results back.
Beyond the school level, data for the entire Jerome School District will be analyzed to see where students have grown — or where they haven’t.
That involves looking at specific areas within the English/language arts tests, for example, such as reading comprehension and vocabulary.
“We start to try to find where the holes are,” Avery said.
How do schools prepare students?
Beyond regular classroom instruction, Critchfield said she has noticed at elementary schools where “the lead up to the test is presented in a non-stressful way” to help students avoid anxiety.
Some schools even have theme days.
“I think those are the soft, non-academic strategies that our schools use to ease the pressure that students and families might feel about testing,” Critchfield said.
But beyond elementary school, students are used to taking more serious tests, she said.
O’Leary offered a twice-a-week SBAC preparation class for students from January until testing began in April.
It was targeted at students identified as being close to moving up to the next proficiency level, Campbell said, but any student could participate.
O’Leary teachers also gave interim assessments to their students starting in January.
What about technology glitches?
With computer-based tests and so many students relying on Internet access all at once, technology challenges sometimes arise.
But this year, the general consensus is that things are running fairly smoothly for Magic Valley schools.
“We were concerned we might tax our Wi-Fi a little too much,” Campbell said, with one entire grade level testing at once on computers. But “it hasn’t been much of a challenge for us.”
In Cassia County, there haven’t been any significant technology issues, Critchfield said, beyond “normal things that pop up.”
In Jerome, schools have better Internet bandwidth than past years. But even so, “during this testing season, our bandwidth is at 100 percent capacity all of the time,” Avery said.
The only issue was Internet access going down one day at the provider’s location, she said. About 300 students were testing at the time, but the Internet was back up-and-running within 30 minutes.