Reader's View: New exam will help students build critical-thinking skills

READER'S VIEW SMARTER BALANCED ASSESSMENT

July 23, 2013 

Micah Lauer.

Idaho's State Department of Education recently announced that the ISAT will be replaced by the new Smarter Balanced Assessment a year earlier than planned.

In spring 2014, Idaho's students will participate in field tests of the new assessment, which is designed to measure student progress toward meeting the Idaho Core Standards. The ISAT will only be taken by students fulfilling graduation requirements.

This change is noteworthy because differences between the assessments are significant. On the ISAT, students choose A, B, C or D primarily to demonstrate fact-based knowledge. Conversely, the Smarter Balanced Assessment places emphasis on the process of "doing," asking students to think deeply and apply a wide range of strategies to several types of tasks. In addition to answering shorter questions, students will now complete extended performance tasks, which may be unlike anything they have experienced before in testing.

One fourth-grade performance task sample released by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium illustrates the significant changes. The task begins by prompting students to watch a video, view three images and read two articles about Civil War quilts. During an initial 35-minute session, students will take notes about the source materials and respond to a series of questions. Next, students will have 70 minutes to plan, draft and revise an informational essay summarizing the importance and history of the topic. Instead of asking students to simply recall facts from memory, the assessment provides context and purpose; students will conduct research like historians then write intelligently like historians.

The implications are exciting. Gone are the days of stuffing heads full of knowledge. The Idaho Core Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessment challenge educators to teach strategies for research, inquiry and literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening) that will allow students to graduate from high school possessing critical-thinking and problem-solving strategies indicative of career and college readiness. This is important because research shows that many students leave high school with deficiencies in these areas and are subsequently at a disadvantage in higher education and the workplace.

Educators can now direct more effort toward helping students build tool kits of essential academic strategies and make real-world connections to subject matter. My life-science students plan salsa gardens, compose human body handbooks, develop board games that replicate the circulatory system and write arguments based in textual evidence.

Still, there are challenges to be faced. The new Core Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessment represent a profound change in educational philosophy. Implementation will take time and may not always go smoothly. For example, when Kentucky's traditional state-level assessment was replaced with a Core-compatible assessment similar to the one Idaho students will take, proficiency rates dropped as much as 45 percent.

Students in Kentucky did not become less competent; the assessment targets changed. Therefore, we need to exercise patience with the initial outcomes of the Smarter Balanced Assessment. It will be more difficult and an initial decrease in proficiency rates is likely; however, Idaho's students will be no less competent.

We live in a society where immediate gratification reigns supreme, and we often form opinions first and ask questions later. Sometimes it is difficult to exercise understanding and patience; yet this is exactly what Idaho's educators and students need as they work though such significant changes.

This reform process is like any worthwhile endeavor. It is deserving of the time needed for careful and thorough implementation to occur.

Micah Lauer teaches middle school science in Meridian and is a 2013 fellow in the Boise State Writing Project.

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