SBAC update: Districts report fewer glitches, but long test days

In the third year of administering Idaho’s online SBAC exam, school leaders are reporting a smoother process with fewer technical glitches and parent complaints.

But school leaders continue to worry about the time and cost it takes to administer the controversial test, commonly called the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced. The long name stems from the multistate Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium that created and oversees the test.

Since March 20, tens of thousands of public and charter school students have taken the test in English language arts and math. Idaho requires students in grades three through eight and 10th grade to complete the test each year — but passing it or demonstrating proficiency is not a graduation requirement.

State officials extended the testing window by one week this year — to May 26 — to accommodate schools that experienced prolonged closures resulting from extreme winter storms.

State officials used the SBAC to replace the previous ISAT test, and began rolling it out through small pilot projects in 2013. By 2015, the test was fully operational, and the state began reporting student scores.

“Everything gets better every year,” said Karlynn Laraway, the State Department of Education’s director of assessment. “The more familiar we are with the platform and delivery system, the better it is for local districts.

“Students are more familiar not only with the testing environment, but the test expectations.”

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This year, Laraway and other SDE officials want to help families better understand student test results. Laraway expects results returned to school districts on a rolling basis, 10 days after students complete the test. In addition to supplying printed student test reports, the SDE launched a new webpage designed to help families understand test scores. Once families have the score, they can access the webpage, enter their student’s grade level, subject and score range and access more information about what the score means and how the test aligns to Idaho content standards.

Each district is also given access to an online reporting system that shows current and past scores, trends and comparisons, as well as areas where students struggle and excel. From there, district leaders can decide whether all teachers receive access to the online reporting system, or if that information stays at the district level. Either way, Laraway said, there is no additional cost to a district that provides all teachers access to the reporting system.

“Any time teachers have access to student performance data, there is a lot to be gleaned from that,” Laraway said.

However, there are also limits to the data’s utility. Reports won’t be available until the end of the school year, so a teacher cannot do much to adjust instruction in the final weeks of the year.

Idaho is among 15 states, one territory and the Bureau of Indian Education in the SBAC consortium. As an original member, Idaho has certain privileges, such as the ability to vote on policy decisions and budgets.

Idaho remains under contract with the SBAC through June 30, 2019, Laraway said.

Here are four SBAC snapshots from around the state:

Caldwell

Chief academic officer Jodie Mills said a few years of experience coupled with a district-wide change in philosophy have led to a smoother testing process.

Jodie Mills

“It’s old hat now — we’ve had three years to work out scheduling bugs and technology, and it’s going really well for us,” Mills said.

The district is embracing John Hattie’s visible learning principles, focusing on persevering through obstacles and identifying learner dispositions. As a result, officials don’t view the ISAT as something everyone should be afraid of.

“It’s just part of the assessment package, it’s no longer this big thing at end of our journey,” Mills said. “By understanding what that journey is, the teachers embrace that, the kids embrace that and we’ve gotten away from that ‘big thing’ mindset.”

Caldwell administers the test through a variety of means, including Chromebooks and computer labs. The district hopes to finish most testing in a couple weeks, although administrators will adhere to the state testing window to allow for makeups or special accommodations.

Mills cited another benefit to the change in mindset and the benefit of experience. Parent opt-outs haven’t been an issue this year.

Madison County

The SBAC continues to be a source of controversy in this East Idaho district.

Geoffrey Thomas

Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas was one of the state’s original SBAC critics, and he continues to harbor concerns about the test. Thomas believes the test robs students and teachers of too much valuable instruction time. And once the test is complete and scored, Thomas said the districts receive information of minimal value.

Madison County began testing two weeks ago, and Thomas hopes to be mostly finished in another two weeks.

“These facilities have to be used for testing virtually for the entire month, so children can’t access the libraries or can’t access computer labs,” Thomas said.

At Madison County High School, 53 percent of students’ parents opted them out of the test, Thomas said. That number might seem high, but Thomas said parent opt-outs peaked at 90 percent a couple years ago.

When parents request to opt their children out of the test, Thomas honors the request as long as the parent comes to the office and makes an official request. Students are given an alternative assignment or research project appropriate to their grade level.

Thomas continues to advocate dumping the SBAC and adopting a shorter, less expensive test that provides better data for informing instruction.

He estimated each of the two sections of the test takes students more than three hours to complete.

Boise

Boise school officials reported a generally smooth testing experience after overcoming a few initial technological glitches.

But they say the test is taking students longer than ever to complete.

Debbie Donovan, the district’s administrator of student programs, said it often takes students more than four hours to complete the English section, and math takes an additional three hours.

“They haven’t added to or changed the questions — I think we’re seeing kids are needing to reread the passage several times,” Donovan said. “But maybe it’s that they have more skill at it and are used to it more so they are taking a little more time and being more thorough.”

Donovan hopes students spending a little more time on the test will translate to higher scores, but worries that “four hours is a lot of time to be persisting at a test.”

Don Coberly

Donovan reported only about 20 students have been opted out of testing, mostly for medical reasons.

Boise administrators hope to return scores to families sooner this year, before the school year ends.

Although things are running more smoothly this year, Superintendent Don Coberly said the state just isn’t getting a good enough return to justify the time and expense of the SBAC.

“My feedback to the Legislature has been and continues to be we need to look for an alternative to the SBAC,” Coberly said. “The gist of the argument and the concern we have is ‘Give us information for the improvement of instruction.’ We just don’t see that with our current assessment model, except for the SAT.”

Blaine County

Marcia Grabow, Blaine County’s data and assessment coordinator, reported a very smooth testing process, improved test results and almost no parent complaints.

“It’s in the third year, and the feedback is everyone just seems much more comfortable with the whole process,” Grabow said.

Now that many Wood River High School students are finished with testing, Grabow said school officials have been pleasantly surprised to see results already coming in.

“We’re getting score reports back much more quickly this year, and that’s been really nice,” she said. “We’re getting math test results within a week, and it’s just been nice for teachers to be able to look at some of those.”

Grabow has also noticed that students are taking longer on the English portion of the test than the math. In general, she said students are even exceeding state estimates for completing the English portion of the test, likely due to the extensive reading passages.

She said  administrators are striving to work with parents, to share practice questions and help families understand what a child’s test score means.

As a result, she said there appear to be fewer controversies.

“We have multiple measures for kids and very useful sets of information that we get from it and use it,” Grabow said. “We try to let parents understand how we use the results.”

This year, Grabow said she is aware of just two students whose parents opted them out of testing.

Parent resource

Once you have your student’s SBAC test results, visit the state’s online test score guide for more information about what test scores mean and how the test aligns to Idaho content standards.