State changes educational assessment

The new computer-based assessment test is designed to better assess students depth of knowledge.MAPP: Mountain Area educators prepare for change

awileman@sierrastar.comDecember 3, 2013 

When Glenn Reid took over as superintendent for Bass Lake School District in 2006 he had no idea the changes in store for teachers and administrators in the near future.

As we enter the 21st century it is obvious to those in education that technology is at the forefront of learning and will sooner, rather than later, be infused into lesson plans and teaching schemes.

This is something both the state of California and local Mountain Area school districts are currently collaborating on. Teachers are working on developing new teaching styles and techniques, as well as adapting to new assessment techniques.

In recent months Governor Brown and state legislatures passed a bill that will suspend the STAR testing going forward and will give districts a one year window to pilot the new assessment testing programs that are in-line with the new state requirements and standards.

The bill replaces the old standardized STAR testing with a newer revised version of testing called the Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress (MAPP). These assessments will be paid for using funds that were originally designated for STAR testing.

The newly designed assessments will be computer-based, allowing for a much broader range of test questions than the multiple-choice exams given under STAR.

The idea behind the switch from STAR to MAPP is to allow students a chance to use the technology they have grown up around with the purpose of focusing on critical thinking, problem solving and showing a "greater depth of knowledge," - all key parts of the common core standards adopted by California and 45 other states in recent years. The idea behind the new common core standards and assessment testing is to promote college and career readiness for all students in the state of California.

Earlier this year Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, recommended the STAR test be replaced with a more extensive testing system that would be able to be completed online and would require students to teach what they have learned rather than answer in a standard A, B, C format.

According to a publication written by Oxford Predatory Academy, Torlakson is emphatic about the changes taking place in California's state wide assessment program.

"These new assessments represent a challenge for our education system-but a lifetime of opportunity for students. As a teacher, I'm thrilled to see our state and our schools once again leading the way," Torlakson said.

Reid believes this new testing scheme will better suit students and will integrate technology and teaching. Students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their thinking processes - to explain how and why they got a certain answer to a problem. These problems they will be asked to solve will not be the standard 7 x 8 = 56 problems. Students will have to apply knowledge from a variety of sources to come up with solutions - and then have to justify their findings.

"In the long run, this is exactly the type of learning that we want our students to experience," Reid said. "In the real world, this is what employers expect from their employees -- that they can take knowledge and apply it in various situations to perform a task. The challenge schools will be facing is the transition period from the old way of doing things to the new way."

Seeing the benefit for students from this type of approach Mountain Area districts like Chawanakee, Yosemite, and Bass Lake are eager to get on board with this change and are at the forefront of this testing. All three districts are preparing their teachers for the changes taking place in the coming years.

As a way to prepare Bass Lake teachers the leadership team in the district set up a teacher training opportunities last week at Oakhurst Elementary School. The theme for the two days was Developing 21st Century Learners. Nicole Star, a long term substitute teacher for the Bass Lake School district says she is excited and looks forward to interpreting what she has learned at the conference. She says the kids are already ahead of teachers in many aspects of technology.

"I am excited to get into the classroom and let the kids learn...the technology doesn't make me nervous at all because if I have trouble so many the students already know what to do....there is always one "techy" in the class," Star said.

Heading up last weeks training seminar was Tricia Protzman, Program Director for Madera County Office of Education. Protzman was used as an expert to help teachers who didn't quite feel comfortable behind the computer, in hopes of getting a head start on the implantation of technology based testing.

"If you look at a teaching plan from more than 50 years ago and I show you lesson plan from today, you won't see much of a difference....a lot has changed in the world since then and technology is so quickly outdated," Protzman said.

Bob Nelson, superintendent for Chawanakee Unified School District says his staff is fully prepared for what is in store and says Chawanakee Unified has already taken the approach of multifaceted learning opportunities.

"The goal is to get kids career ready and I think that goal is a worth while one... if we can stick to that it will be very beneficial for students. We are preparing student for jobs that don't even exist at this point."

These changes, set to begin during the 2014/2015 school year, gives teachers and administrators a year to incorporate and get accustom to the new teaching and test taking style. Something teachers have mixed feelings about as they focus on learning new skills they have never been exposed to before.

According to educators past assessments took a more test oriented approach and teachers taught more towards testing rather than the actual skills sets necessary for life beyond school. Administrators hope this new assessment will allow for a greater depth of knowledge and a way to assess that knowledge.

The old system focused on a few subjects and in some ways allowed students to bluff their way through testing. The new assessment system holds kids accountable for what they have learned and focuses on supporting your conclusions. According to educators it will emphasis to the students the importance of explaining their thinking and demonstrating how they come to a specific conclusion.

However, not everything about the new testing scheme is beneficial to students. In some cases implementing a new teaching scheme and assessment can cause for much confusion and temporary struggles.

Nelson said he believes the changes are in good faith but will require patience and some students might experience growing pains.

"I think it is initially going to be hard of students....It's going to take them time to adjust... but it will become easier over time. Students who have initially done well will struggle and that will take time. I hope people don't perceive that as failure, but rather growth in the right direction," Nelson said.

Other problems include giving student/parent assessments this year since there are no tests being given in this regards. Teacher and administrators will have a difficult time explaining to parents where there students stand when it comes to education and many test scores can be misleading for the first few tests.

"I think for the most part it is difficult during the transition year...we have a year where we don't have anything to give the parents.....ultimately the more rigorous testing will be better but we have to understand that kids will struggle at first while we figure out what is being tested," Nelson said.

Along with changes in dynamics and teaching styles comes financial changes. Some district supervisors and teachers are also concerned with the increase of cost accompanying the new system. Cost will include new curriculum, professional development and new technology, all of which will cost the state and districts lots of money. Other professionals fear that if a new testing program is adopted the state may lose out on federal funding, something legislatures are refusing to acknowledge.

No matter what happens financially the ball is rolling and it's time for teacher to get on board. The changes are in affect and hopefully throughout this gradual and somewhat confusing change the end results will be a better educational system and learning environment for the students in the state of California.

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