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North Dakota districts resume Common Core-aligned test after delay

A test gauging North Dakota students' knowledge on new educational standards was delayed a second time Wednesday after a problem with the testing vendor, according to one school district, but will resume at an unspecified date, officials said. (Getty Images)

A test gauging North Dakota students' knowledge on new educational standards was delayed a second time Wednesday after a problem with the testing vendor, according to one school district.

Grand Forks and Bismarck students were supposed to be among the first in the state to take the new Smarter Balanced Assessment, which aligns with Common Core standards for math and English and was fully introduced in classrooms last year. But late Tuesday, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction notified Grand Forks administrators about a "problematic anomaly" in the test delivery system, said Carrie Weipert, interim district assessment coordinator for the district. The new testing date has not yet been announced.

Students in grades third through eighth and 11th will take the test, which has significant reach. Millions of students in Common Core states have taken or will take a test by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the two main testing consortia.

Some North Dakota superintendents and educators say the preparation process has caused some strain, whether during the preparation process or because of the delays. But the same officials report low numbers of students opting out of the tests, a problem in some states that led to worries over downgraded school ratings.

New vs. old test

Students accustomed to pencil-and-paper tests will notice a difference.

The new test is online and adaptive to student response. Correct answers prompt slightly harder questions, while incorrect answers prompt slightly easier ones.

Students will be pressed more for their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills -- multiple-choice and short-answer do not appear nearly as much compared to the past -- and computer use beyond data entry is expected. For instance, for the math portion students must graph and manipulate data, said Weipert.

"It really requires kids to do a lot more open-ended reading and writing than we've been able to do in the past," she said. "You also can't guess answers for this."

But online support tools such as dictionaries or spell-check will be helpful, particularly for special education or limited English proficiency students. That way, they can focus more on the questions and not stumble over the test itself, educators say.

Other new elements include the introduction of listening comprehension, "performance tasks" -- a full writing assignment for English, for instance -- and a preparatory class students have to take before the test.

Despite the new challenges in the test, the number of students opting not to take the test is low. Grand Forks reported fewer than five, Bismarck reported 18 and Fargo reported six, said school officials.

Getting ready

Test preparation has required a lot of coordination and training but for the most part has gone smoothly, said school officials.

The testing window for the lower grades in North Dakota was supposed to open March 16, but the state delayed the date to make sure the online testing system would run smoothly, said Dale Wetzel, spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction.

The testing window for 11th-grade students is planned to start April 20. It closes for all grades at the end of the school year.

In Grand Forks, about 3,700 total students across 17 different buildings will take the test, said Weipert. With about 1,900 machines needed for testing, district staff had to spend some time readying the machines. However, sixth- and seventh-graders will use their own one-on-one devices, which is helpful, she said.

Teams of administrators and coordinators at each school have done the majority of the work. Teachers are currently familiarizing students with the practice, she said.

"We don't want any kid to go in and not know what the test looks like," she said.

Planning and preparation has gone well, she said.

"Test preparation has required more time and effort than in the past simply because we're learning a brand new testing system with new rules and procedures," she said.

Some said scheduling difficulties have come up, in part because of the delayed testing date.

Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Schatz said his district received delayed information from the state Department of Public Instruction. This disrupted testing schedules made training for teachers and support staff more challenging, he said. However, like others, he'd anticipated challenges and said staff will be ready by the time testing begins for seven buildings March 30.

In Bismarck, the district had to plan how to share laptop computers because it doesn't have enough for one-to-one access for all grades being assessed, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman.

"The other big challenge for us will be to continue to communicate clearly what this assessment is and what it is not," she said. "This assessment is not a basic skills test. This assessment has a raised bar."

North Dakota districts will find the results four to six weeks after the test window closes. Weipert said she's eager to see the scores.

"I'm optimistic that it will really help us see where the district is at with Common Core and highlight what we're doing well and what we can work on," she said.

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