Today I watched our 6th graders participate in the statewide pilot of the new Smarter Balanced test. Fortunately it didn’t count. It was a pilot. The results will not show up on a letter home from the state superintendent of instruction. They will not be in the local newspaper. They will not be shoved like ill-fitting shoes into a clumsy calibration of school improvement or the relative deficits of assorted critical subgroups. They are neither summative nor formative.
There will be no rallies or celebrations or incantations to orchestrate.
They walked into the computer lab wholly unprepared and unfazed.
I observed our students closely because state and national assessments of academic proficiency should not be a mystery. If we want to measure the degree to which children have mastered common core state standards, they shouldn’t get tripped up by idiosyncrasies of the testing instrument.
And that’s why we volunteered to pilot the test. And I’m glad we did.
We’ve been taking the computer-based MAPS test three times a year since 2006, and kids’ familiarity with the laboratory atmosphere was evident: the ubiquitous adult proctors roaming the room, the sparsely decorated walls, the cramped workspace. The sterility. The humming AC. The numbing silence.
I watched as our students struggled against the adaptive technology. They managed their personalized 10-digit student id’s and they logged on. They battled through computer glitches, error messages, and inexplicable re-sets that bounced them off the test network altogether.
But that was only the beginning. Once underway, it became immediately evident that our students are woefully un-prepared for the Common Core.
The Smarter Balanced math exam is a one of the feature products known as “next generation assessments.” While there are a handful of multiple choice questions, the bulk of the test demands critical thinking, adaptability, persistence, authentic problem solving and a cross-curricular knowledge base. They are the 21st Century skills and we’re just not good at invoking those.
Our students have gotten comfortable with selecting their answer from four possible options staring back at them from a scantron sheet. The answer was always there. They didn’t have to calculate anything. They could guess. And better yet, they could race through a test filling in bubbles with reasonable assurance that, in the end, their answer sheet would look like everybody else’s. Just complete the page and the stress provoking irritant will go away.
Actually the Smarter Balanced pilot test made me realize just how destructive our current accountability system called No Child Left Behind has really been. For the past twelve years we’ve been required by state and federal laws to focus on basic skills at the expense of creative and critical thinking. There is a gap– (more like a chasm)– across socioeconomic levels of neighborhoods. But it’s not just an achievement gap. It’s also a gap in what is taught and what is learned; the scope of the curriculum offered. For schools that are compelled to squeeze every API point as if blood from a turnip, the 21st Century skills are a luxury item. Test prep and remediation and interventions crowd out creative writing and project based learning.
High achieving schools, on the other hand, in predominantly affluent and white neighborhoods, have continued to provide advanced students with a comprehensive curriculum; one that challenges students to think and innovate and apply their skills to authentic tasks.
Which group of students is best equipped for the most ambitious college and career pathways?
We have the results we designed for. We’ve all contributed to a scheme that perpetuates the pernicious effects of academic tracking.
But in looking over the shoulders yesterday of otherwise frustrated and befuddled and totally unprepared twelve year olds, I saw a glimpse of a very different future. One in which all schools, regardless of zip code, will be driven by high expectations and the pursuit of authentic, marketable skillsets that prepare kids for life beyond these lab tests.