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One state tries to say bye-bye bubble sheets

May 21, 2016

As Indiana awaits recommendations from a committee trying to figure out what student exams will look like after 2017, one idea out of New Hampshire is capturing the attention of educators.

New Hampshire’s “performance tasks” are considered some of the most innovative standardized tests in the country, but they don’t look much like standardized tests at all.

The pilot program in the Granite State—called Performance Assessment of Competency Education, or PACE—moves away from the computerized testing and multiple-choice bubble sheets that have been the backbone of annual state exams for decades.

In their place, the PACE program asks kids in the eight pilot districts to do “performance tasks” throughout the school year to show deep understanding of the subjects they’re studying.

For example, while a traditional geometry exam might ask students to solve math problems and even require them to show how they calculated their answer, New Hampshire now asks them to complete complex problems applied to real-world situations that require a range of skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in class.

“We asked the kids to be a town planner, and as part of that planning board they are asked to design two towers that use solids,” said Lee Sheedy, a New Hampshire high school geometry teacher who’s been working on the test questions since the pilot began in 2014. “One would be a simple solid and the other had to be a compound solid. They then write a proposal to the town recommending one of the towers.”

To complete the task, students must draw models, do calculations, analyze results and write a proposal all in one exercise, Sheedy said.

Students in the pilot districts take the Smarter Balanced exam—a more traditional standardized test that is used in more than a dozen states—in third-grade English, fourth-grade math and eighth-grade English and math. All high-school juniors take the SAT.

In the rest of the grades, students must complete performance tasks in math, English and science throughout the year according to where those tasks fall in the curriculum. Some of the tasks are “local,” which help districts measure student progress at certain points in the academic year, but others are “common,” which can be compared across districts.

Once the tasks are completed, the classroom teachers grade them. “Common” tasks are scored, then validated by the state against predetermined sample answers.

For both common and local questions, teachers are trained for about two weeks over the course of the year by their peers to use the scoring guides to grade student answers. Then, for the common questions, teachers compare their scoring processes to those of teachers from other schools and districts to ensure they are accurate. Final scores are reported to the state for accountability purposes.

For the water tower problem, students received one of four possible scores and needed to show work in three areas: models and scale drawings, calculations and mathematical strategy and communication, and analysis and recommendation.

Kathleen Cotton, a curriculum and instruction coach in Sheedy’s district in Rochester, said that, although extra work is involved on the front end, the performance tasks give teachers information they can use immediately.

“You look at some of this high-stakes testing that we have, and it really is not engaging at the time because the students don’t really have any buy-in except of that one score at the end,” Cotton said.

Sheedy said he’s never seen kids so focused as when they are working on the new types of tests.

“When you give students a real-world problem, you allow them to be creative; you allow them to think critically,” he said. “They get incredibly motivated. If you walked into my room during PACE, you could hear a pin drop.”

The New Hampshire experiment is making ripples across the country as more and more states are looking for alternatives to traditional once-a-year testing.

States looking for options are encouraged by changes to federal testing regulations that are expected next year when the No Child Left Behind Act is replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law still requires every state to create an accountability system that measures annual student performance, but it allows more flexibility. As many as seven states could be chosen to try innovative exams.

The work to overhaul a testing system isn’t easy. And for larger states with more diverse student populations, varied funding across districts and stricter accountability systems, like Indiana, it’s not clear if this model would see the the same kind of success it’s seen in New Hampshire.

It’s also not clear if Indiana education officials are going to even pursue an innovation pilot under ESSA, although state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning have expressed interest in New Hampshire’s model.

“There’s a lot left to be learned about that innovation pilot,” said Danielle Shockey, Indiana’s deputy state superintendent.•

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