Mar 14, 2014 2:18 PM by Lindsey Gordon (lindsey@kxlh.com)

Helena schools prep for computer-based Smarter Balanced testing

HELENA - Montana students will soon put down the pencils and log onto computers to take the new statewide standardized test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

Starting March 18, Montana students will join students from 26 other states in the Common Core Standards-aligned test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

Paper and pencil will be replaced by computer screens, but technology limitations for the Helena school district have administrators and teachers anxious about uncertainties.

Tests will be administered on desktops and laptops in rotating shifts in each school because of the limited amount of computers and bandwidth the district has available.

Each school's schedule for testing will look a little different, particularly for those elementary schools without designated computer labs.

"Because the students, they'll be sharing the mobile labs and really they have to look at how long mobile labs will stay plugged in and keep the battery life," said Sara Loewen, the district's Data & Assessment administrator.

And the length of testing sessions will vary by schools as well, "They may be testing students for one hour sessions, or 45-minute sessions in the morning and then again before lunch and then maybe in the afternoon depending on the amount of computers available in each school and the amount of students that have to go through," she said.

According to Loewen, students should be able to finish assessment in about a week's time, but the window for the district to get all students tested closes May 14.

"At Helena we're working very hard to ensure that we have as minimal impact to instruction as we can, but still meeting our state and federal requirements for participation," said Loewen.

She said that in total, the new Smarter Balanced test will require up to 8 hours of testing for students, but since this year is a trial run, students may not be doing it all this time around.

And even though the results this year won't technically count, test creators will evaluate questions based on the results and decide whether or not to use them in the future.

Additionally, the results will hopefully help teachers next year see where students need more instruction, said Loewen.

But she adds there is no indication of when those results will be returned to districts and what they'll show.

"We know that there are going to be bugs and we'll do our best and we'll all learn from it," said Loewen.

So it could be about adding more computers, or deciding that they need to purchase a computer mouse for each laptop because students had trouble working on a mouse pad, or any number of other things that come up this time around.

She said after the testing period, they'll have an opportunity to reach out to the Montana Office of Public Instruction about successes and failures this time around and hopefully the district can adapt to ensure 2014-2015 is smooth sailing.

Because next time around, it's going to count.


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