By Scott A. Giles
Nobody likes to take tests, myself included.
So it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I accepted to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe’s invitation to take the new Smarter Balanced Assessments in April. My anxiety increased when I entered Montpelier High School to discover we would be taking the 11th grade math assessments. Three of us had accepted the challenge and each suppressed visions of impending public humiliation like that reserved for adult contestants on “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?”
So why did we agree to do this?
Vermont, like many states, is raising its educational standards to ensure that our children have the knowledge and skills to be active citizens and compete in the 21st century global economy. Our goal is to ensure that every child graduates from high school with the tools they need to successfully pursue education, training and career.
This year we introduced new assessments aligned to these standards. The SBACs, as they are called, use computer-based adaptive testing to assess proficiency in Common Core standards for English/language arts and mathematics. Many people have opinions about the value and quality of testing, but few actually take the assessments themselves. I wanted the opportunity to learn firsthand what we are asking of Vermont students.
Let me start by saying the SBAC isn’t the multiple-choice, bubble test from my high school days.
The computer adaptive testing “personalizes” the difficulty of questions throughout the assessment, based on student responses. When I answered a question correctly, my next question was harder. If I was wrong, my next question was easier. Each student will be challenged to the top of their ability, and no students will receive the exact same test.
There was also an interactive assessment led by a teacher that was fun, relevant to the interests of students, and required the application of all the same concepts, reasoning and problem-solving skills measured by the earlier assessment.
This test is hard. I have multiple advanced degrees and left sure that I had not performed well (I was pleasantly surprised by my score— and tried unsuccessfully to get cred with my kids). That said, I recognized every question as something that I once knew and as something that was important that our students be able to reason through and apply.
This is a significant and important change. Students and teachers will have more accurate and realistic measurements of knowledge levels and student progress. The results will help refine curriculum and teaching, where and when needed. Students will have a snapshot of what they have achieved and know where they need to focus their efforts. Importantly, it will give us a window into a whole range of equity issues.
No test is perfect, but I think this is a move in the right direction. Vermont’s first test results — which were sent by local schools to parents this week — will probably require a re-tooling of our collective perspective as educators, parents and students about what it means to be proficient. The scores are different and they may alarm some who will view them as proof that Vermont’s K-12 system isn’t working or that the test is too difficult.
VSAC’s own research has shown repeatedly that students who are more academically prepared are much more likely to go on to more education – regardless of family income or parents’ educational levels.
We have raised our expectations to ensure that all students develop the knowledge and problem-solving skills they need to succeed. These scores will likely show us that we must work to achieve these higher standards. The real test will be how we use what we learn.
Scott Giles is president and CEO of Vermont Student Assistance Corporation and chairman of the Vermont PreK-16 Council.