Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mechanicsburg Launches Online Testing

As Ohio begins their new state assessments this week, there are many things that we are anticipating to learn as educators.  Up to this point, we have made many assumptions as to what it will be like for our students to test online.  Intentionally, we have placed each testing unit on it’s own day to be sure we are not asking too much of students.  We have tried our best to test in the morning, to assign students to devices they have used all year, and to keep classroom locations stable.  We have taken the 20 day testing window and spread the units for all grades across that time frame.  From the outside looking in, 20 days seems like a long span to complete testing.  Unfortunately, multiple classes and units at each grade level have made this venture more difficult than anticipated.  After the first administration cycle is over, we will refine our schedules as needed to protect the conditions that will best help students show what they know.  However, we must first administer the assessments in order to make educated adjustments.  

It is important to remember that the new state assessments our children are about to take are not common core.  With the controversy surrounding the common core standards, the distinction that online assessments are just a measure of the curriculum is important to make clear.  Just because online assessments measure Ohio’s new learning standards, the assumption shouldn’t be made that online assessment practices are faulty (that is assuming you as a reader have concerns regarding common core).  Over the last several years, students and teachers have had more experience with online tools in the classroom and in everyday life, so the transition to online assessments is not out of line regardless of the content being measured.   We began online testing in Mechanicsburg 5 years ago, administering online ACT end of course assessments at the high school in English, Mathematics, and Science.  These online assessments are now second nature for our HS students, who adjusted to online assessments much quicker than we did as the adults monitoring the assessment periods.  They are also second nature for our teachers who would hate to give them up now.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are/were flaws in the “old” testing system as well.  Only now that “new” assessments are upon us, does the “old” Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA) system seem more suited for education.   The OAAs were a one time snapshot of what students have learned over an entire year.  Each assessment was 2.5 hours long, rather than broken down into units of shorter length.  Assessments data was not available to districts until well into summer, also not optimal for planning for the next school year .  Not to mention that at some grade levels, students were proficient when earning only 40-50% of the total raw points on the assessment.  That is not anywhere close to the standard we set for everyday mastering of the curriculum in our classrooms.  It is often hard to look back to where we have been,  but over time, we adjusted, accommodated, and used the state data system as one measure of what we do for students.  We are more than qualified to use the same process again at this point time.

All that being said, are there potential flaws in the timing or transition to common core, online assessments, and teacher/principal evaluation based on student data?  Yes there are flaws.  As mentioned earlier, the scheduling of multiple units across districts in a 20 day timeframe is more daunting than anticipated.  Linking teacher evaluation to new assessments/platforms, is not something we support at the district level.  We WANT our teachers to step outside the box and take risks in learning.  We KNOW that often times the failures teach us more in the long run.  However, I understand the anxiety that accompanies these “high stakes” tests.   With that being said, the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 487 in the spring of 2014 that provides for a one year “safe harbor” for districts and teachers as Ohio transitions to new tests for the 2014-2015 school year.  This “safe harbor” will hopefully set some minds at ease as testing launches.  

There is other pending legislation that may reduce the amount of new assessments presented to our students, which may be contrary to our daily work depending on the final bill language.  Our instruction each day is preparing students for assessments, as our instruction is aligned to the content standards measured on state assessments.  Many districts, Mechanicsburg leading the way, have local practices in place to assess student learning on a regular basis in order to adjust instruction accordingly.  Why would the state want to limit our local district time engaging in practices that have moved the district from continuous improvement to high performing?  State assessments are just one lens of data that we consider when planning, adjusting, and delivering instruction to students.  Issues with the state testing system should tie our hands at the local level.

As we approach our first day of online testing, here are some things to remember:
  1. Each day students participate in aligned instruction, we are preparing them to be successful during online testing.
  2. Teachers have taken risks and taught outside of their comfort level in transition to the new learning standards.  Their efforts have not gone unnoticed.  
  3. Our excitement and comfort working in the new assessment system will transfer and support student learning.
  4. We are all in this together and just like the old proficiency and achievement systems, it will get “easier” over time.
  5. We get to choose how we respond to changes at the state level and how we advocate for our district.  While we wait to see how things shake out in legislation, we have chosen to practice, study, collaborate, and explore online assessment practices and aligned instruction.  Those choices are the ones to remember during testing as they do serve students well.  
  6. We are the “Best Small School in Ohio” for several reasons, believe in it!


Danielle Prohaska, Superintendent
Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools

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