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Can A Test Measure Critical Thinking? Schools Hope To Find Out

Jessica Robinson
Northwest News Network
Students take a quiz in Eric Miller's eighth grade algebra class at Lakes Magnet Middle School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Northwest parents of school-aged children have a new acronym to learn: The SBAC.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is a new standardized test that's set to replace current state math and language arts tests in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It's billed as the “next generation” of assessment -- a test that hopes to capture students' abilities with more depth than traditional standardized tests.

But some critics say the new test runs into the same old problems.

"This new test was going to be very difficult"

The SBAC is made up of a group of 24 states. And last year, hundreds of schools, including many in the Northwest, got their first taste of what the new test is like.

Seventh graders at Lakes Magnet Middle School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, filed into the computer lab in the school's library for the test.

Ryan Gillespie, a math coach for the district, says this new test has been talked about for years.

“It was almost becoming lore," he says. "You know, this new test was going to be very difficult. We were just excited to see if the myths were true.”

The pilot didn't go off without a hitch. The online test was sluggish at times. The dragging and highlighting functions didn't work so well. But Gillespie says the questions themselves were noticeably different.

Here's an example. In the past, students might be given this equation: 3x + 1 = 9, and asked to solve for x.

The kids would then "do a minus one here, a minus one there," and then divide both sides by three -- to get x = 2 2/3.

"So it's an 'if I do this, I do this, then I circle my answer and I'm done,'" Gillespie explains.

But, he says, the student might not understand what that two and two thirds means or why it’s x.

On the SBAC, Gillespie says kids might still have to solve for x, but they were also asked questions like this:

Here's the equation, 3x + 1 = 9, and here's five different real world scenarios. Which of these five scenarios could be modeled using this equation?

"So, kids have to understand that mathematical sentence, that language, understand conceptually what it means," says Gillespie. "And it was something we've never been evaluated on.”

A higher bar

The SBAC is designed to accomplish something that parents and teachers have long sought: an assessment aimed at measuring critical thinking. The test includes multiple choice questions, but also more complex “performance tasks” where students have to take in information and give a long-form answer. Schools will be able to see how they stack up to other states and track year-to-year student growth from grade 3 on.

Mike Nelson, director of curriculum and assessment for the Coeur d'Alene School District, says parents may see proficiency levels go down at first because students are being asked to clear a higher bar.

“In my history as an assessment guy, this is a much different test than what we've seen before," Nelson says. "And it's a better test. We want kids, yes, to have requisite knowledge but we want them to apply and use that knowledge for their betterment.”

The test is tied to the new, more rigorous Common Core standards in math, reading and writing that most states have adopted. Those standards have proven contentious among some parents and politicians, but among educators, it's not the standards -- it’s the tests that are more controversial.

Too hard of a test?

At a recent hearing in the Idaho legislature, Bruce Cook, a curriculum director from Rexburg, Idaho, said kids as young as eight and nine may not have the computer skills to take the SBAC.

“We have had to put money and time into keyboarding," he says. "We didn't have a keyboarding program for third and fourth graders. I don't know that most schools did. But we surely didn't.”

One poll found only 27 percent of teachers in Idaho support the SBAC. Some schools say the test is just too hard -- and too long. The SBAC isn't timed, but it's expected to range from six hours in total for elementary schoolers, up to seven-and-a-half hours for older students.

Kansas dropped out of the Smarter Balanced consortium late last year to create its own test. Alaska plans to follow. And there are rumblings about doing the same in Idaho.

Washington State University education researcher Amy Roth McDuffie says the biggest problem isn't about the SBAC itself -- or any test aligned to the Common Core standards. It's how much value teachers, districts and even the state put on the test. Last year, she co-authored a report based on surveys of middle school math teachers. It found most teachers planned to use the test as a guide for classroom instruction, in part because the test weighs heavily on teachers' own evaluations.

“My concerns then are if the focus so much is on seeing the test -- and it's understandable that they take that stance -- then are we really aiming to teach to the Common Core, or are we teaching to a test and what can easily be tested?”

McDuffie worries the Common Core standards states have crafted so carefully could ultimately be less important than a single test.

But Ryan Gillespie, the math instructor in Coeur d'Alene, has a different view of it. He says teaching to this test -- if that’s what happens -- wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

“Math has always been something that's much more dynamic to me than just memorizing procedures," he says. "And so, when I was watching this test and I was seeing what kids were having to do, to me, I was thrilled, because the questions were asking kids to use the skills (that were) why I got into math in the first place.”

This spring, teachers and students across the Northwest will get to experience the full test for the first time. And for this year only, the results won't count. Schools are running a field test of the SBAC, a kind of test of the test. You can even take a practice version of the test yourself. 

By 2018, it's expected to become a graduation requirement in Washington and Idaho and one option to demonstrate essential skills in Oregon.