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Clippings: The kids' big new test is challenging

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When my kids complain about the tests they take in school, I tell them that, as an adult (I turned 50 this summer, I’m entitled) I’m tested every day. Oh, Daddy has such a rough life, I tell them, he gets quizzed on this and tested on that — there are math tests (did the cashier at Shaw’s give me the right change), and reading tests (does that sign say “Stop” or “Slow-n-go”), and life skills tests (what’s that person’s name, gosh darn it I’ve met him 15 times if I’ve met him once). I’ve got smart kids, they don’t pay much attention when I ramble on.

I do try to pay attention to what’s going on in their school at least a little bit. And I heard tell of a new test that my kids — and all kids in public schools — will have to take this year. For the past someteen years Vermont students had to take — and pass, more or less — the NECAP tests. This year they’re switching to a test that is ALL NEW, so to speak. It will be the same test for every kid in the country (depending on what grade they’re in) and given on computers hooked up to the Internet — no more No. 2 pencils and bubble sheets.

I logged onto the practice test website the other day — you can, too, its at http://sbac.portal.airast.org/practice-test. The website is called “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.” It was quite eye-opening.

The first hurdle once I got logged on was deciding which test to take. I signed in as an eighth-grader and I had six options, including a training test, practice test and performance task for both math and ELA, which I took to be English and Language Arts. Given my line of employment (never ask a journalist to figure a percentage for you) I chose the ELA practice test. Then there were more choices, like did I want to take the test in English or Braille (I had no idea how Braille works on a computer, so I chose that one)? I also got to choose the color of the font and the background: black on white, black on rose, yellow on blue, medium gray on light gray or reverse contrast. Which would you choose? I opted for black on rose; it was lovely.

The ELA test was easier than it might have been, but more challenging than I would have liked. For the first eight questions I had to read an essay on the photographer Ansel Adams and then answer questions. There were some in the multiple guess format, a few short answer questions, and some were kinda difficult.

In some ways it wasn’t that different than typical standardized tests; the correct answer is often the longer one, it’s also not usually the first option.

One shortcoming of the software was obvious on Question 10, where I was supposed to click the sentence that best reflected the theme of the piece, but it wouldn’t let me click on the sentence I wanted, so I clicked on the second-best sentence. Hopefully I got at least partial credit. Maybe the software was stopping me from making a bad choice.

The computer format does other features not available on paper. I had to listen to a piece on video games and then answer questions in one part. And, despite it being on a computer, you can go back and review all your answers before submitting them.

I liked that Question 18 centers around an “editorial” a student is writing for the local newspaper. I didn’t like that the test writer was using the word “editorial” incorrectly. What was meant was a “letter to the editor” or an opinion piece — only editors write editorials.

Even though my education has gone way beyond middle school, the ELA Grade 8 practice test was somewhat challenging. Some of the fault was mine; I really didn’t want to get any of the answers wrong so even on the poorly worded questions I pondered my answers long and hard — this despite the fact that it was a practice test that no one was ever going to score and which wouldn’t prepare me for any of the myriad tests I actually do face every day in my regular adult life.

With ELA under my belt I checked out the math practice test. It was humbling.

Question 1: Drag each number of three to its correct position on the number line, which was a line with hash marks and segments designated from 0 to 0.8, by tenths. The numbers were all fractions with the first number being the square root of 4 over 5. Yikes! Square roots? As part of a fraction? In eighth grade? The second fraction was pi over 5. Ooof! Not only was it pi, but it was the symbol for pi. Talk about intimidating. The third fraction was three over 10. Hmmm. I already told you that the line was marked off in tenths ... this just seemed too easy.

Question 2. Indicate whether the number is “rational” or “irrational.” What do those words even mean in terms of mathematics? I seemed to remember that there was some sort of help on this computerized test, and hoped there was a dictionary. I found something that said it was a “tutorial.” I thought a tutor would come in quite handy at this point so I clicked on that. Up popped a box that walked me through how to click on the boxes in the test. Good grief.

Then I remembered that I was on a computer, and I called over to my eggheaded friend Google and ask him what are rational and irrational numbers. Once I figured out how easy it was to crib off my friend Google I started cruising through the test.

“Google, what’s the square root of 324?”

That’s 18, John. Ask me another.

“Google, what’s 7.5 X 10 to the fifth power times 8.6 X10 to the fourth power?”

That’s 64.5 X 10 to the 10th power. Ask me something more challenging, John, or I’ll go play with Mr. Cherrier.

I muddled through a long series of geometry and algebra, some prompting me to draw graphs, my progress slowing with each question. Eventually I hit a wall where I couldn’t find Google translations and I just started to guess randomly (guessing is a perfectly valid strategy in multiple choice tests).

Even though it was a practice test, I had a feeling of accomplishment when I finished — it was a long slog, but I did it!

Now that I’ve checked out the new standardized test that my daughters will have to take I can report back to them that they should not be intimidated. They can handle it. And, honestly, taking the test will be no more psychologically challenging than an evening spent washing the dishes. Yes, girls, Daddy knows you have your big test tomorrow, but you still have to wash the dishes.

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