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State weighs options for standardized tests

Anthony Alpert, executive director of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, spoke and answered questions from state legislators at an interim meeting of the education committee on Thursday morning. (Tom Stomme/ Bismarck Tribune)

BISMARCK -- The head of the group that developed North Dakota’s new standardized test addressed concerns from lawmakers Thursday over the exam’s botched rollout, while another organization made a pitch to switch to its assessment.

As early as next month, students throughout the state in grades 3-8 and 11 will sit in front of computers to take the Smarter Balanced math and English test for the second year. Meanwhile, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction is deciding whether to stick with Smarter Balanced or administer a new test in 2017, such as the ACT Aspire.

Legislators on the interim Education Committee posed questions to the two testing groups Thursday, pressing the executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium on his organization’s plans to address problems that occurred when students took the test for the first time last spring.

Students throughout the North Dakota encountered technology glitches. Some could not log in online to take the test. Servers became overwhelmed with a high number of people trying to access exams at once. As a result, some students were forced to skip portions of the exam or take a paper version.

“To say some of us in the education committees were disappointed and frustrated would be putting it lightly,” said Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck.

Smarter Balanced director Anthony Alpert acknowledged the problems while assuring lawmakers his organization is taking steps to ensure it goes smoothly next time.

“It was a horribly disappointing experience for many of us,” he said.

He said North Dakota will administer the test this spring using a different version of software that worked in California last year.

Smarter Balanced is evaluating the software that experienced problems and making enhancements, he said. North Dakota could decide to adopt it again down the road.

Alpert added that he anticipates scoring to be completed more quickly this year.

The Department of Public Instruction released preliminary test results in October, six months after the first students took the assessment. Some school districts, however, did not receive scores until this month because their students did not take all portions of the exam, leading to grading delays.

Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, said some of the students in Advanced Placement courses at Century High School had to return to the computers day after day to finish the test because of its adaptive nature. The questions become either increasingly difficult as students provide correct responses or easier if students answer incorrectly.

“It took well over a week of instructional time away from our kids,” said Poolman, who is also an English teacher at Century.

Alpert said the adaptive nature of the test should not make it longer. Gifted students, however, may not be accustomed to challenging questions like the ones on the assessment, he said.

“They probably had to pause a little bit more, take a little more time than what they traditionally might have to do if the questions were easy for them,” he said.

He also updated lawmakers on other aspects of the test. More than 220 colleges now accept Smarter Balanced scores as a placement tool to determine whether students need to take remedial classes, he said.

Fourteen other states are governing members of the Smarter Balanced consortium, meaning they make decisions about the test and administer it at their schools.

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said she needs to determine by the end of this year which test students will take in 2017.

She has convened a task force to give input on the future of standardized testing in North Dakota and expects to receive a final recommendation in June.

The state could develop its own test as it did prior to implementing Smarter Balanced. North Dakota also could purchase a test — either from Smarter Balanced or another group.

Baesler’s department also could go for a hybrid of those two options.

If the state opts for a test developed by another group, it could select the ACT Aspire.

Leaders of that organization also addressed lawmakers Thursday.

“What if students could know how they are progressing before they take the ACT?” asked Darice Keating, president of the ACT Aspire.

She was referring to the college entrance exam taken by all North Dakota high school juniors.

The ACT Aspire is a different test administered to students in grades 3-10. She said it was developed to measure a student’s progress toward being ready for college or a career long before high school.

The results help teachers identify areas in which students are struggling early on so they have time to intervene and get kids on track, she said.

Students are tested in five areas: English, math, reading, science and writing. When high school freshmen and sophomores take the assessment, they also receive a predicted ACT college entrance exam score.

Six states have adopted the ACT Aspire and 3 million students have taken it since April 2014.

The assessment is administered online or on paper. Keating said some states choose to have all test takers complete it on computers, whereas others leave it up to school districts to decide.

She said servers have the capacity for 300,000 students to take the test during the same hour.

Like the Smarter Balanced test, the ACT Aspire is aligned to Common Core standards.

Donna Matovinovic, vice president of testing development for ACT Aspire, said the science portion of the test measures how well students grasp the scientific process.

She said science teachers throughout the country teach concepts at different grades. Instead of focusing on those topics, the test measures a student's ability to analyze graphs, collect data and generate conclusions.

North Dakota students in grades 4, 8 and 11 currently take a standardized science test separate from Smarter Balanced.

The ACT Aspire would cost $20 to 23 per student for the online exam, Keating said. A paper version is $7 more per student.

Baesler said Smarter Balanced is comparable in price at $24 to $27 per student.

She said more than 50,000 North Dakota students take standardized tests in a given year.