Four N.H. School Districts Allowed To Cut Back On Statewide Standardized Tests

Mar 5, 2015

New Hampshire students will take a new standardized test this spring, called the Smarter Balanced. Early indications are the test will be substantially more difficult, and school teachers and administrators are anxious, and some – like Manchester – have been looking for an out, only to find there is not much wiggle room.

Thursday, four districts received federal approval to conduct a first-of-its-kind pilot program, which will mean reducing the number of times students take the Smarter Balanced from seven to three. Instead the districts will give students assessments written by local teachers.

The federal education law, No Child Left Behind, requires students to take state-wide standardized tests in Math and reading, in 3rd through 8th grade, and one more time in high school.

New Hampshire students have been taking an assessment called the NECAP, but it’s not popular with many teachers.

“The NECAP does not benefit students,” says Ellen Hume-Howard, the curriculum director for Sanborn School District which includes Kingston and Newton, “They walk away from doing it as some sort of tortuous six-hours that they had to spend, it doesn’t help them.”

But the NECAP, which this year will be replaced with the Smarter Balanced, is one of the few measures parents have of whether schools are doing their job.  So for some time education reformers have puzzled over how to make these assessments more representative of what students know, and less of a disruption to the actual work of teaching and learning.

Yesterday, four New Hampshire school districts – Rochester, Epping, Sanborn and Souhegan – got approval to conduct a pilot program they hope will do just that.

“We’ll be able to substitute our local assessments from the Smarter Balanced, and make it so assessment isn’t an event any more, it’s part of what we do on a daily basis in our classrooms,” says Blake

Under the program, the number of grades that take the tests will be cut in half. They will still give the Smarter Balanced three times, once in elementary, once in middle and once in high school. The testing will be synced up with important developmental bench-marks: for instance 3rd graders would take a reading test, and 4th graders a math test, because those are important ages in those subjects.

“We’re not afraid of Smarter Balanced, we think it has a place, we just think that the place that we need to put it should be the biggest bang for our buck,” explains Hume-Howard.

Meet PACE

In the years without a state-wide test, students will be given tasks, one per subject, per year and written by local teachers. These tasks would be large, and complex; more like reports or projects. The tasks are part of what will be called Performance Assessments of Competency Education, or PACE.

For example a question for English and Language Arts might ask a student to consider a community initiative and could include “writing letters to community leaders around what the costs would be, what the plusses and minuses would be of putting the project in place, and then doing an argument both for and against that project,” says Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s Deputy Commissioner of Education.

And here’s the kicker, those tasks are graded by local teachers, will be administered as part of normal classwork, and will count toward the student’s grades, unlike previous standardized tests.

The questions have all been peer-reviewed and are shared between the four districts in something called a “task bank.” While schools will only be required to report results of one shared task per year in each subject, teachers will be free to draw from the task bank more frequently as part of their regular curriculum.

“It really is a new idea, a new concept, really a new day for education,” says Leather.

Toward a New Statewide Test

This is the first time in the country a pilot like this has been approved.

Governor Maggie Hassan called the announcement a first-in-the-nation achievement. “And as we see teachers getting empowered and getting more expert at this, I think they’re going to be very eager to work with their colleagues across the state and across the country,” she says.

Deb Delisle, the US Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, says other states could follow in the New Hampshire’s footsteps, but notes there were years of work leading up to today’s announcement

“If and when other states are interested and ready to do this kind of innovative work, we’d certainly look for ways to support them, but we also believe they’d need to make the same kind of commitments to quality, comparability and equity as New Hampshire has done,” she explained in an interview Thursday.

“My guess is that there will be very intrigued by what New Hampshire is doing, and may actually look to New Hampshire as a model,” she says.

The pilot needs to be reapproved after two years, and the state says it hopes to expand it as it goes. There are four more schools waiting in the wings, ready to join next year. That is crucial, because part of the reason the feds said yes to this pilot, is because they expect this locally written assessment to eventually be given at every school as a new statewide test.

But New Hampshire’s Paul Leather says, the schools taking part this year are some of state’s most engaged and advanced. They’ve done years’ worth of work – studying assessment theory, switching their instruction style, and now writing the so-called performance tasks.

He says if other schools want to cut back on testing, they’ll be expected to do the same.

“I think that there are districts that have not put the kind of effort and preparation into both leadership and building the strength of their educators to be able to do this,” he said.

If New Hampshire doesn’t eventually ramp up to the point where all of its schools are taking this test, it has agreed to go back to the Smarter Balanced.

But Brian Blake, with Sanborn, doesn’t think that will happen, instead “I think this is where the country is headed and I’m glad that we’re taking the lead.”

How much enthusiasm there is for this alternative, will of course depend on how unpopular the Smarter Balanced is, compared to the local assessments, when they’re all given for the first time this spring.