Districts, state spar over Common Core test

As the state launches its new Idaho Core Standards, the state and several of its largest school districts are at odds about how to test students this spring.

Don Coberly
Boise schools Superintendent Don Coberly

The district superintendents say the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test will be costly, and gobble up too much classroom and computer lab time. If this exam will take eight hours to finish, or more, “then we really ought to rethink that,” Boise superintendent Don Coberly says.

The state Education Department concedes that the new test will take more time, but it will also yield more comprehensive student data. Putting the SBAC exam on hold “moves us backward,” says Luci Willits, chief of staff to state superintendent Tom Luna.

The two sides will meet on Dec. 20 to discuss their differences.

Significantly, this rift has nothing to do with the Idaho Core Standards themselves — new math and English language arts standards that are designed to encourage critical thinking and emphasize writing skills.

Idaho schools have begun teaching to the standards this year. In April and May, all third- through 11th-grade students will take the SBAC exam. But this is, in essence, a test of the test; under a one-year federal waiver, the Idaho scores will not be used as a school accountability measure.

In November, a group of Southwest Idaho school leaders restated their support for the Idaho Core Standards — calling them “a set of high-quality, rigorous academic standards.” But they also urged the state to postpone a field test of an “unproven” SBAC exam.

The consortium of schools carries some weight. It includes Idaho’s three largest school districts, Meridian, Boise and Nampa. It also includes six outlying districts — Caldwell, Emmett, Kuna, Middleton, Mountain Home and Vallivue — and Bishop Kelly High School, a private school in Boise. Taken together, the consortium has more than 106,000 students, or 38 percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment.

Why delay the SBAC test?

The school districts have three main problems with SBAC exam:

  • Cost. They say the state can save $1 million by postponing the SBAC test for ninth- through 11th-graders, and using the Scholastic Aptitude Test as a measure of college readiness. The state already requires high school students to take the college entrance exam, and every spring, the state pays test fees for thousands of 11th graders who take the SAT.
  • Classroom time. The SBAC exam, which combines multiple choice and written components, will take 7 ½ to 8 hours to complete — or twice as long as the previous Idaho Standards Achievement Tests, which have been administered in the state for a decade. The superintendents are particularly concerned with 11th-graders, since many of them also are expected to take the SAT and Advanced Placement and other college-level assessments. “Every day of the final nine weeks of the 2013-14 11th-grade school year will be consumed by testing,” the districts say in a white paper explaining their opposition to SBAC.
  • Computer time. Because the computer-based SBAC exam will take more time, students will not be able to access lab computers for other school assignments.

While the SBAC exam will take up hours of learning time, the superintendents don’t expect to get student-level data that will help teachers. They’re expecting to see little more than broad trends. “I think (with) an eight-hour assessment, we ought to learn a lot about our kids,” Emmett Superintendent Wayne Rush said Tuesday.

The superintendents favor ditching the SBAC exam this year, and relying instead on two tests. The want third- through eighth-graders to take the Measures of Academic Progress test, a multiple-choice exam that will take about 4 hours to complete. They want the state to measure 11th-graders growth by using the SAT. Ninth- and 10th-grade students would not be tested.

Why keep the SBAC test?

Idaho’s Education Department has been an active partner in the 23-state partnership that is developing the SBAC. Not surprisingly, the department wants to stay the course — and field test the exam this spring. The state wants the test to be fully in place by the spring of 2015, and will use the results as a linchpin for the next round of school five-star ratings.

Luci Willits, K-12 interim committee, 10.2.13
Luci Willits, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s chief of staff.

Willits refutes the superintendents’ criticisms of the SBAC exam:

  • The overall cost will be comparable to the ISAT, the computer-based test that is being phased out.
  • Switching to the SBAC exam — which will include a writing component that mirrors Common Core’s writing emphasis — will be worth the extra time, because it will better measure critical thinking skills.
  • The schools have flexibility to administer the SBAC exam in a number of ways. Students can take the exams on personal or school-issued computers or tablets. And unlike the old ISAT, this new test does not need to be finished in one sitting.

Willits isn’t sold on the alternatives suggested by the districts. While Idaho requires high school students to take the SAT or another college-entrance exam, these tests serve a different function, and do not measure student mastery of academic standards. And the MAP would take Idaho schools back to administering a multiple-choice test, when teachers and parents need a better measure of student growth.

“Teachers have long wanted an assessment that isn’t ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c’ or ‘d,’ and they’re finally going to get it,” Willits said.

What’s next?

Idaho is not required to stick with the SBAC assessment. States are allowed to choose their own assessment method, and Idaho could change its course — but it’s unlikely.

The Education Department wants to keep the SBAC assessment, Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said. Still, Luna will meet with area superintendents on Dec. 20. “We’ll have a conversation about the concerns they’ve raised.”

Coberly believes the superintendents’ plan will meet federal testing guidelines, so he’s hoping for more give and take. “I expect that we’ll be able to find some common ground and move on.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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