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State Tests – from the eyes of one that has seen

The joy of homeschooling in its purest form, is that you do not have to bend to anyone’s core or curriculum. And you certainly don’t have to take any state mandated tests here in Utah as of yet. As a parent, you can control what you expose to some degree to your children. You set the scope, the sequence and the assessment.

Someone asked why I would want to be involved with the new state assessment process. To be honest, I have asked myself this very question. Truth be known, when my children were younger we were home schoolers in the purest sense of the word. We had so much fun traveling and experiencing learning. As they grew, I needed additional resources to make sure they could reach their potential and thankfully the Utah system provided some of those resources.

I could not provide a chemistry lab or the upper maths for my older child in a timely manner and meet the needs of my younger children. Finding private tutors was extremely difficult and the public school system already had the courses with some great educators. I am what some parents would consider a dual enrollment parent. I am very eclectic in my approach to homeschool and would consider myself an opportunist seeking the right mentors for my children. As a result my children will be subject to the state testing in one way or another.

With the new FERPA laws and the ability to track data, I felt it imperative that core knowledge was tested without the social agendas. A proper test would include facts and not any of the controversial, subjective, social, or the psychosomatic testing. If USOE or our school system is to be trusted, it is imperative to remove all items related to any social agenda or touchy feel stuff and stick to the factual knowledge. We have enough factual knowledge; we don’t need any of the extra stuff.

15 parents were chosen to review the test. Those selected will have the opportunity to serve on this panel for the next two years and others will serve four. I have chosen to serve four years. This group of individuals are a thoughtful, concerned, and a strong bunch. The test was divided amongst the 15 of us. Each 1/15th was divided into 4 batches consisting roughly of 660 questions. I personally reviewed 9 batches. Out of the 10000 questions reviewed, only approximately 600 had concerns. Relatively a small number. Those concerns ranged from content, grammar, functionality and more. In the 9 batches I was able to review, I only saw two questions that really rubbed me wrong. I presented my concerns to the group and we discussed better solutions and helpful comments.

We were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement where we could discuss the test but not the core content questions outside of our time there. So you will not find any content of the test here. If it is in the core then it is probably on the test. 

What did you learn?

First, if I had a concern, “write it in the comments box”. The people monitoring would not answer questions but would facilitate our ability to comment on what we saw. They were non-partial and very attentive to our needs. A pleasant and wonderful staff. It was a pleasure to work with them and those on the parent panel.

After finding out the vender for the test would be AIR, I was very concerned since AIR’s forte is psychological testing. Having seen psychological tests, I walked in thinking I would see the situational or touchy-feely questions. I did not see any such questions. I was pleased to see so many uplifting, informative and local referenced passages. Any passages which appeared to have subjective text, answers that led children to believe an opinion as fact or social agendas were addressed not only by myself but by many of the parents there. Each question was reviewed by two or three parents.

As a former 3-5th grade Spanish Immersion Teacher and Science Specialist, it became very apparent that science and math teachers will need to do a thorough job of covering the core. Also, It was apparent that parents need to take advantage of the sage parent practice tests so that the children are familiar with the new formatting and test taking procedures. It is not just multiple choice. There are drag and drop, highlighting, text responses, and interactive questions in all the areas. Children will need to learn to type before 3rd grade for the writing evaluations.

There is a help portal for parents here:
http://www.sageportal.com

There will be Training Tests supposedly starting in December which will not have questions from the core but rather a sampling of the prototypes of questions to be used to get answers. Student must learn how to manipulate the mouse, drag, drop and perform other needed computer skills. The typing skills including sentence structure, capitalization and such will need to be addressed much sooner including how to use a mouse and not a touch screen.

What is tested?

Reading, Math, Science, Writing – If it is in the core, then it is covered. As for specifics, I will not address that ever.

Reading/Language Arts were much the same as before. I was surprised there wasn’t a reading level diagnostic but I am assuming the schools will already have that implemented somewhere else. The subject matter comes from all over but what I saw was uplifting. Those I vetted were the ones best left in a classroom discussion situation rather than a testing situation.

Math will no longer have just multiple-choice answers to choose from but rather now they will type in the answer. The ability to solve the problem correctly will be vital. Students will need to know the process and be able to type in the answer to the question. No longer will they be able to figure out the questions by utilizing the answers given. There is fewer multiple choice answers, you have to use the numbers given and type your answer in. 3-6th will not have a calculator and there are no fuzzy answers. Part of the 6th grade test and grades 7-11 will be allowed access to a calculator either through the software, or they are allowed to bring their own approved calculator.

I think Science was my favorite part. In science, they will need to understand the subject matter and how to perform an experiment. There will no longer be any guessing for they will be required to make conclusions from the data they create while utilizing the scientific method. Biology better know biology, chemistry better know chemistry. For those who have been taught well, this test will actually be fun. There will be drag and drops and everything you can imagine. They will need to understand vocabulary and models not just definitions (burn the crosswords!) as well as feel comfortable using a mouse.

Writing will be much easier since there is more than a prompt. There is reading text to draw conclusions from. They will need to utilize the information given and write a composition supporting the prompt using the information provided. The students will have access to spelling check but grammar check will not be allowed. The student will have supporting as well as opposing text that will help the student create their own ideas and formulate their own conclusions. The topics are across the board. The structure of persuasive essay and informational essays will be key. You can listen to the teacher webinar training here: http://connect.schools.utah.gov/p141zhflhsf/

Concerns I have for the test

Since this is history in the making, where parents vet the test, I would hope that the parent panel could be involved sooner so that the subjective questions could be eliminated prior to the technological implementation. It would be more cost effective for everyone involved. There were a few reading texts and science questions that need to be vetted but overall there were far less objective questions than I presupposed going into the evaluation. And it was nice to see that as a parent, I was not the only parent who was concerned regarding the few questions that were subjective and leaned towards opinion verses factual.

I am concerned that schools will be graded upon this test when it still has yet to be piloted. Through the pilot they will be able to gather the necessary statistics to provide a proper mean, and medium for grading. Until the test has enough test questions in its bank, the questions vetted for the children’s ability to understand and complete, and the rubrics are properly establish for the writing, there is no fair or proper way to establish a grading system for those who are required to take the test.

I am confident and certain that homeschoolers should not be required to take this test EVER. Most don’t teach to this exam. Many of us follow a traditional math sequence so the grade levels may not coincide. And most do not focus upon teaching their children typing skills in the third grade.

I am concerned that we as the parent panel get to know of the modifications and resolutions for the questions for which we were concerned. We are told they will be addressed but at this point we may not get to see the changes until we review the next set of questions. Out of the 10,000 questions there were only a small percentage of questions that need to be addressed. I would hope in some time in the future we could find out if they were addressed or not. By removing any subjective questions and utilizing only facts for the test, I feel that this test can be a fair method to judge learning and growth but only after it is vetted and piloted correctly.

Some ways to prepare a child

Remember if you are going to utilize funds or resources distributed through the government, there will always be strings attached. If you want to know which tests will be required of your student go to here:

Summative Sage Test Assignment and Core

Let your child have a blog. Keep it private but have them write their responses to the reading, science and anything that could possibly be a writing response. May even use the blog for a nature journal and print the information and paste in their nature journals.

Don’t get caught up in fuzzy math. Fluency in math facts are imperative not only for memory but for problem solving quickly and effectively. They don’t have fuzzy explanations on the test.

Use a mouse. The touch screen is wonderful! But these tests are not created for a touch screen. (Maybe in the future since iPads seems to be the vital classroom tool.)

Use the practice tests on the new sage site when available.

And finally…yes, you can “opt-out.” The problem with opting out is this: Current legislation has it that if you opt out your child, your child is seen as “non-proficient.” So “opt-out” carries the stigma of “non-proficient.” If a school has a large population that is determined non proficient, then the lower the score for the school grade in turn can effect the school negatively. Currently 5 percent of the schools population can (opt-out/refuse to take the test) without any negative consequences. How does this effect those who utilize charter schools or alternative online programs?

First, the schools from which their SIS funding comes from, will only want a few of their students to opt-out. For a charter school with 78 students, three students can opt out. For a school with 300 hundred students, they can have 15 students refuse to take the test. This means a form must be signed and an “official opt out” is created. A student who doesn’t show up for testing receives even a worse score. Thus, it is imperative to make sure if you are opting out that you notify your school immediately. You always take the chance of the school dropping you when notifying them but, even worse yet, a no show has a trickle down effect that the schools refuse to offer the programs to homeschoolers. The charter schools are catching on quickly and dropping the programs of Harmony or My Tech High. Thus the mandatory testing requirement for those programs.

They are giving a nine week window for the schools to offer the tests so there is relatively few reasons why a no show occurs.

Overall, this parent panel and review was an amazing experience. I imagine that if this process was implemented in the former state tests there would be far more trust from the public. And if the comments from the panel are implemented, then I would feel confident that my son could take this test without any negative repercussions. And in four years, when the test is refined, it could be use to evaluate teachers for content and schools for instruction. Although let me make it clear, I don’t see assessment as a solution. It is a tool. But that is topic for another blog someday.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Cristina November 13, 2013, 9:29 am

    Hi, Kim! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this up!

    You said that if a child opts out, he/she will be seen as non-proficient. Now, how does failing the test affect the child short and long term? Would it be better to purely homeschool so the kids never take the test instead of using charter schools and fail the test? I ask this because most homeschoolers will not be teaching to the common core and will very likely fail some of the tests.
    Thanks,
    Cristina

  • Kim November 13, 2013, 9:51 am

    Cristina, I am currently investigating which is the best route. So far, I have learned taking the test at this point at least gives you a score of 1. A no show gives you a score of 0. I am not certain how the opt out is measured. I think it is measure twice as a zero against the school. The growth is to be seen from one year to the next not necessarily in the first year the test is taken. I will do more homework tomorrow and see what I can find out.

    It was very evident to me that homeschoolers would do fine in the English as long as they are being taught how to read, reading comprehension, grammar, vocabulary and the ability to find supporting details. In Math, if you teach to calculus you will cover all that is needed for the test until then it will not be a measure of math progress. For Science, is typically book learning. To be successful, you will need to teach the scientific method and how to make conclusions from your data. Writing is usually a weakness for homeschoolers because they don’t tend to bluff very well. Now with text and data there, if a child knows how to write essays and informational responses, they will do fine. The two issues I can see being a problem which is very important is that parents don’t teach typing in complete sentences and paragraphs before third grade or math answers. So that could get very frustrating.

    The test are not timed so a student can take as long as the school will allow them to take the test.
    Kim wants to school you about State Tests – from the eyes of one that has seenMy Profile

  • Cristina November 13, 2013, 10:04 am

    Thank you!

  • Kim February 4, 2014, 2:19 pm

    If you want to see the results from our parental review you scroll down to the bottom of this link: http://hsplaywithapurpose.blogspot.com/2013/11/dual-enrollment-and-state-tests-from.html
    Kim wants to school you about Utah Competency Testing and possible State ScholarshipsMy Profile

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