New Common Core tests arrive for Ohio students

For the third time in three years, Ohio students will face a different standardized test.

Starting Monday, Ohio schools can begin administering the newest version of those exams. Education leaders believe the tests will avoid much of the controversy that doomed last year's exams created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

"In general, will it go better? I think it most certainly will," said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy for the education think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Students, parents and educators grew dissatisfied with last year's exams for taking too long and not being developmentally appropriate. This and other problems led to the state firing PARCC last summer and selecting the American Institutes for Research to provide its English and math exams. The company was already in charge of the state science and social studies exams.

Aldis said last year was especially problematic because Ohio was essentially the guinea pig for the national use of PARCC tests. He said the state has made a good effort to ensure the new test roll-out goes well, but there will likely be some hiccups regardless.

"Smoother doesn't mean it will be perfect," he said. "This is still a new test."

With the new tests upcoming, here is a look at what Ohio students and parents can expect.

Q. Who is taking the tests?

A. Generally everyone from third grade through high school will take some form of test in the spring. Most everyone takes some form of English and math exam from third grade on. Social studies tests are given in grades 4 and 6, as well as some in high school. Science tests are given in grades 5 and 8, as well as biology for high school and physical science for this year's sophomore class.

Q. When will the tests be given?

A. Tests will be given from April 4 to May 13. Districts have flexibility in when during that time to administer the exams. The English tests must be completed by April 29, while other tests can stretch into May. Districts that use online tests vs. paper ones have an extra week to administer the exams.

Q. How long will the tests take?

A. Less time than last year. Each test will be about three hours and is divided into two parts. Schools have the option of giving students two 90-minute tests or taking it all at once. The PARCC math and English tests typically lasted between four and five hours.

Q. What has the state done to make this year's tests better?

A. Since firing PARCC, the state has made a concerted effort to share how the new state tests were being developed. This included everything from creating email updates for parents to selecting roughly 250 Ohio educators to help vet the new tests.

Jim Wright, state director of curriculum and assessment, said a similar process of vetting was used for the PARCC exams, but Ohio was one of many states giving input to those exams. This time, that is not the case.

"This is strictly and empirically an Ohio-grown test and endeavor," he said.

Aldis added that the state deserves credit for its outreach efforts, which would have been easy to dismiss given the work it takes to develop a new state test.

"The department taking extra time to make sure everyone understands what is going on is a smart move and the right decision," he said.

Q. PARCC was fired in the summer. Was there enough time to develop a new test?

A. Yes, but not necessarily the test Ohio students will use in future years. Wright said educators reviewed and vetted math and English questions from a pool of questions provided by AIR. This gave them the opportunity to pick the questions that were developmentally appropriate for students.

There was not enough time to allow Ohio educators to write questions for this year's exams. That is being done for future years' tests, however.

Wright said by working with AIR, a company Ohio has used for years, the process has been as smooth as could be expected.

"Yes, we are confident. The fact we are working with a known vendor and a known process, we think this is the best test for Ohio moving forward," he said.

Q. Will Ohio students still opt out of these tests?

A. Some will, but probably not a lot. Despite all the furor over the testing last year, roughly 99 percent of Ohio students still took the PARCC exams. Aldis said one of the main reasons for opting out last year was the time spent on testing, which has been reduced for this school year. While some parents will have their children not take the tests, he expects that number to be small again this year.

Q. Will the content of the exams be different?

A. Probably not. For starters, the science and social studies tests will be the same. In math and English, the test provider is changing, but the Common Core standards they are based on are not.

In addition, the new math and English tests will likely be in the same format used for science and social studies, as they are all coming from the same company, Aldis said.

"The test will probably not feel that much different to most kids," he said.

Q. So what will be on the test?

A. The tests are based on Ohio's state standards, which for math and English come from Common Core. The standards can be found online at education.ohio.gov/Topics/Ohios-Learning-Standards. They set what should be known by students at certain grades. For example, first-grade students should be able to use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting or events. A third-grader should be able to multiply and divide within 100.

Sample test items have been published online. One example from third-grade math: A division equation is shown. 32/8=4. Create a related multiplication equation using the same three numbers. Enter the equation in the box.

In addition, the state has released blueprints showing what the tests will generally measure. For example, in third-grade English, the plan shows the test will have 42 points. Of those, 16 will come from reading literary texts, 16 will come from reading informational texts and 10 will come from writing.

Wright said there are more standards that can be tested in a single year, so the blueprints show which will be highlighted in a given year. Over two to three years, the tests will cover all the standards, he said.

Q. When will test results be available?

A. School officials were especially critical of last year's tests because they did not receive results for months. The state just released the final report card information for the 2014-2015 school year in March.

This led to criticism of the testing process as the results came so late that they were unable to be used to help guide teaching.

According to the state, results will arrive much sooner from this round of spring tests. Districts are to receive results by June 15 for English exams and by June 30 for all other tests. The state expects to release its next round of report cards by the fall.

Q. Is there a difference between the paper and online exam?

A. Aside from the means of taking the test, some educators believe there is a disparity between online and paper testing. Basically, the belief is that students and thus schools scored better on the paper test versus the computer one.

A study by Michael Molnar, executive director of educational services for the Amherst Schools, showed that districts generally scored higher on its value-added grade when taking the paper test versus the online one during the previous school year. Value-added measures student growth. His data shows that on average, districts dropped one and a half letter grades from the previous year if they used the online test and improved by a letter grade by using the paper test.

Dave Hile, superintendent for Licking Valley Schools outside Newark, said it was common knowledge that the computer tests would be harder because that is what educators heard from PARCC.

"No one should be surprised at those results," he said.

State officials, however, said the tests were comparable and countless other factors could explain why a school did better or worse on one grade on their report card.

Wright said there was no evidence that online or paper test scores needed to be adjusted. He said he expects more districts to move to online testing this year and eventually all Ohio schools will administer their exams electronically.

Aldis, however, said schools will look for whatever advantage they can get in the world of high-stakes testing. If school leaders believe paper tests give a more accurate picture of their students' learning, they will use those tests. He said the state should examine the results of the spring tests to assure schools both tests are fair.

"Districts are going to choose the (test) that they know and they believe in," he said.

Q. What are the stakes of these tests?

A. For this year's tests, the stakes aren't super-high. State lawmakers have passed "safe harbor" laws that delay consequences for the tests as the state adjusts to its new exams.

In most cases, students and teachers can't be punished for poor test scores this year. This means students can't be retained and teachers can't be disciplined or dismissed based on the scores. The only exception is the third-grade reading guarantee, which mandates third-graders be nearly proficient at reading before advancing to the fourth grade. Some high school students also needed to pass the Ohio graduation test, which was given in March.

In addition, districts will not have an overall letter grade until report cards are released in 2018 based on the 2017-2018 school year.

blanka@gannett.com

Twitter: @BenLanka


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