Smarter Balanced Testing: Notes from the Field

As many of you know, we are piloting the new Smarter Balanced Test in several schools around the district.  Although this has been added work and stress for administrators, technology leads, special education staff, and teachers in grades 4 (at BRES), grade 3 (Georgetown), and grade 11 Math (BRHS) we have learned a few things that are worth sharing with the entire AOS as we consider full scale implementation next spring.

Before sharing some of the observations, let me review the big picture as it will apply to all next year.

  • The Smarter Balanced Test is designed to measure student achievement against the Common Core Standards in Math and ELA.
  • The test will replace NECAPs in elementary grades and the SAT in high school.
  • The test will be delivered in the spring.
  • The test is computer delivered, there are no paper and pencil versions except for identified special education students requiring this modification.
  • The test requires from 7-9 hours for ELA and 7-9 hours for Mathematics.
  • The test will be delivered to all students in grades 3-8 and grade 11.
  • Each test (ELA and Mathematics) has two parts; a performance based assessment that includes direct instruction from the teacher prior to completing the assessment, and 4-7 non-performance based tests delivered through a computer interface.


  • The test requires significant technological preparation before delivery; there are software requirements for the devices used, power requirements, and network requirements.
  • The testing software is not well constructed or always intuitive.  No student or test administrator should try the exam without initial practice (there are a number of ways to achieve this, shared below).
  • Younger students as reported from Georgetown and BRES had fewer issues navigating the questions than anticipated.  This is a testament to the preparation of teachers and technology leads in those buildings.
  • The test administrator role is significantly different in this new format.  Test administrators must use  a web interface to begin testing sessions, allow students to begin tests or pause tests, and monitor progress.  Although the test administrator still must read the darkened instructions typical of other exams, the roles described above are very different.
  • Schools planning to use iPads for delivery of the test must have dedicated keyboards, attached via a dongle.

Reflections from the Field

This change in testing regime is going to bring challenges to our schools on many levels.

  1. The exam is significantly harder than accountability tests in the past.
  2. Some question types are likely to be unfamiliar to students (even if they know the content, they may struggle understanding what they are required to do to submit an answer).
  3. The online test interface is not intuitive even for computer savvy adults and students.
  4. Network and device preparation will be critical, especially for our smaller schools.
  5. Although not new, the exams are high stakes for students, teachers, and schools.  The possibility of scoring below traditional levels as measured by the State of Maine’s current accountability measures (the report cards issued each spring) is very real.

I believe we must do everything in our power to address the first four challenges, not because I believe that the results reflect something meaningful (that is still an open question, since no-one has seen how these results will be reported and at what level of granularity), but because we care for our kids.  They need us to be mindful in our preparation so that this endeavor (it may yet turn into an ordeal!) is as painless and positive as possible for them.

We all work at number 1 everyday, but we will need to work at 2-4 next year also.  Students deserve exposure to the different question types they will see on the exam, they deserve opportunities to practice in the online environment long before next spring rolls around, and they deserve hardware and networks that will not fail them.  If we take care of 1-4, number 5 will take care of itself and more importantly though our students may tire after 14-18 hours of testing, they won’t be demoralized.

We may not believe that these results will give us useful information, but we need to be sure our students don’t absorb that belief.    I worry about students absorbing this belief because they could easily carry it to other testing environments, especially later in their school careers, environments that do have real importance for students (PSATs, SATs, Naviance inventories, Accuplacer, NWEAs and even our own summative assessments).  So far I have been impressed with the messages sent by the staff delivering the pilot tests.

Resources to learn more about Smarter Balanced

I would encourage you to begin to look over these resources and once you are familiar with them, introduce some examples to your students as next year unfolds.



About shawncarlson

Assistant Superintendent
This entry was posted in AOS 98, Assessment. Bookmark the permalink.

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