Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Smarter Balanced" Comes to Ann Arbor a Year Early. Why?

A few weeks ago, a couple of teachers emailed me. Here's a sample email.

"If you haven't already heard, I thought I'd alert you that Pioneer (and some of the other comprehensive high schools) have added at the state's request about ten hours of additional testing - 4 1/2 in English and 4 1/2 in math. It is some sort of pilot of the Smarter Balanced test. This will happen in April, right before APs, for the junior class. The juniors will miss 5 English and 5 math classes in April! There is an "explanation" but it all seems really fishy to me. There was mention of the state paying us do do this, but then we were told that wasn't true. It all seems suspect to me and really a crime against our juniors who have already done the MME." (Emphases added.)
I started doing a little investigating,  and that's why I wrote, last week:

Smarter Balanced Test: Try It Out Before Your Kids Take It

(You can find the link to a sample test there.)

I also asked for some information from the school district, and I appreciate the time that Jeanice Swift, LeeAnn Dickinson-Kelly, Jane Landefeld and Merri Lynn Colligan spent explaining both the pilot test and the district's point of view to me. I think it's fair to say that the district's point of view is not the same as the parents' or teachers' or kids' point of view (at least not based on the emails I've gotten or seen posted on Facebook). That is at least partly because the district is beholden to the state in a way that the parents, teachers, and kids are not.

So, in fact--yes. All of the high schools will be piloting at least some portion of the Smarter Balanced test--with the exception of Community, which apparently did this pilot last year.  By ALL of the high schools, I mean: Pioneer, Skyline, Huron, Ann Arbor Tech, and Clemente. Huron will only test the English Language Arts (ELA) test, and the others will test both ELA and Math. The decision of which schools to test was made by the Smarter Balanced Consortium itself and not by the district.

The test window is from April 7th to May 16th for all of the schools (which really means it starts April 14th since the schools are closed this week), but Pioneer got an extension to June 6th. (I don't know why, but...) Each school has a fair amount of autonomy as to how the tests will be given. More about that later.

So why is this happening? 

The district got a Technical Readiness Infrastructure Grant. To receive it, the district needed to promise to meet nine criteria. (I think some other districts in the county also got this, but I don't know which ones. In the grant they refer to charter schools as "districts" as well.) I am hoping to get the district's grant itself, soon, but in the meantime, you can enjoy reading the RFP and the FAQ and all that other good stuff from the state Department of Education itself. One of the requirements is that at least 20% of district students "pilot" online assessments of various stripes--there are many more of those than even I was aware of!

Read the state's RFP. Here's a little excerpt:


The Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grant Program will fund the following

1. Developing and implementing collaborative purchasing arrangements for
statewide network services, and personal learning and assessment devices.
2. Establishing sustainable, cost effective collaborations of technology and data
related services to assist schools and districts to become “test ready.” 

3. Building the capacity of educators at ISDs, public school districts, and public
school academies to effectively plan and implement online assessments and
“Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” learning.
Update 4/7/2014: Just to give a balanced perspective here--even though I read the grant's purpose as being All About Testing, a friend who is a teacher in another district that has this same grant wrote me (after I posted this), that there are some very good things coming out of the technology infrastructure grants. 

She wrote, 
In my experience, it's not at all about extra testing. Our team is 100% responsible for implementation and we are using it to do teacher training on subjects like using gaming in classrooms and integrating byd (cell phones etc) into classrooms without access to computer labs. I'm using my time to do pilot programs on 20time which is very unschooling and open in philosophy, and a minecraft classroom.

And here are some reasons that the district thought applying for this grant, and doing this extra testing, would be a good idea. (And here, I'm trying to put forth the district's "best foot," so to speak.)

Smarter Balanced is going to replace the MEAP next year, and:

a. since the test will be given online, this gives the district a chance to test their systems and technology
b. allows teachers and administrators to get a much better idea of what the test is like (those "sample" tests you can take don't really do it)--this could allow them to prepare for professional development and prepare students as to what to expect
c. they get paid for it--not a huge amount, but $10/student in the district. Given the tightness of the budget, that is not insignificant. (Although it does also tell you how much staff time and effort these online assessments take. I think the district sees this as a mostly-break-even deal.)

Last, but not least, the district sees this as preparing for mandated, high-stakes testing.

There is more that I could say. There is more that I will say. (All week!)

But for right now, I think the key points to remember are:

a. It may be state mandated in the future, but it isn't mandated this year. This year, it is voluntary.

b. When it is mandated, it is really high stakes for the district, but not really for the students. (It won't be used, for example, for grade promotion.)

c. Current plans from the state are for the Smarter Balanced test to be given to 3d to 8th graders, and high school juniors.

d. Kudos to the district for making it clear that taking the test is voluntary, and making it easy for parents to opt their children out of these tests. You just have to send the principal an email or letter saying that is what you are doing.

Read more about the money flowing between the various companies for all this testing. But Michigan's school districts are so hungry for cash that they will comply for chump change.

Coming soon:
--What is in the pilot, and how is it being given in different schools?
--What does the school letter look like? How are parents and teachers reacting?
--Word choice: assessment vs. testing
--Will other kids/classes (9th/10th/12th; other subjects beside English and Math) lose out?
--If we didn't use tests, what other outcomes could we use?

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!


  1. Thank you for doing our community this great good of investigating and explaining.

  2. My understanding (only from my child, not from any teacher or principal or the district) is that this is being tested at the elementary level too. Is this correct? Can you confirm? How will they communicate that taking the test is voluntary? Does this apply to this spring's trial iteration too?

  3. Next year's test will be mandatory, not voluntary. This year is voluntary because it is a pilot.
    I have not heard that it is being tested at the elementary school level in our district--other districts, yes.
    However, there is other online testing coming up in the local elementary schools--most notably the NWEA MAP test in May, but some others as well.

  4. Will the district get paid to give these tests?