Ohio K-12 students to take new tests in 3 weeks

Ohio students will enter a brave new world of school testing in three weeks, with state exams that feature a longer, two-part structure, will be taken largely online for the first time, and will measure the ability to apply concepts more than memorize.

The Ohio Department of Education showed reporters a sampling of new Common Core-based test questions Tuesday, for tests that begin the week of Feb. 16.

Fourth graders were asked to read a passage and identify not just the theme of the story, but also the context clues that helped them get the answer. Third-grade math students were asked to calculate the area of rectangles, compare them to other rectangles, then recalculate the area if the rectangles were combined, and show their work.

“This isn’t a memorize test. This is a concepts, skills and how-do-you-apply-your-knowledge kind of test,” said Char Shryock, leader of the Ohio Educator Leader Cadre, a group that has helped implement Ohio’s new learning standards over the past three years.

But some local educators say the process of switching to the new tests has been rushed.

“We have made a valiant effort (to prepare students),” said Springfield City Schools Superintendent David Estrop. “Are they adequately prepared? We’ll find out when they take the test. My suspicion is, like New York state before us, the results are going to be abysmal. The only way that won’t happen is if the state adjusts the cut score down, permitting more children to pass.”

In New York, only 31 percent of students scored “proficient” in the first year of that state’s Common Core math and reading tests.

New tests

This spring, Ohio largely replaces the years-old Ohio Achievement Assessments and Ohio Graduation Test with Common Core-based tests, most of them from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

All students in grades 3 to 8 will take reading and math tests. Grades 5 and 8 will take science tests, while grades 4 and 6 will take social studies tests. High school sophomores and up are grandfathered into the OGT, while this year’s freshmen take the new tests. Those new high schoolers will take a total of seven subject tests, spread over their first three years of high school (taking the Algebra 1 test whichever year they take that class, for example).

Much of that is similar to the existing structure. But one of the biggest differences is the two-part test. In each tested subject, students will take “performance-based tests,” with more open-ended questions and explanation required, between Feb. 16 and March 20. Then they’ll take end-of-course tests, with more traditional multiple choice questions, between April 13 and May 15.

For that third-grade math “test,” there are actually four testing sessions — two 75-minute units in the performance-based window, and two more in the end-of-course window.

Like many other districts, Kettering schools will limit students to one testing unit per day. While that makes each day more manageable, it also means day after day of taking some piece of a state test.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get the scheduling down,” said Chris Merritt, interim technology director for Kettering schools. “Before, if you were going to take a reading test, it was a one-shot deal. Now, you might take three units of reading, just for the performance-based test, then two more for the end-of-year. … And all of this technology we have will be tied up in testing for an extended period of time, when it should be available for instructional use.”

Academic preparation

Both Merritt and Estrop said teachers in their districts have been giving students practice tests to get them more comfortable with both the academic material and the online testing platform.

“I think we have pretty good handle on the types of questions. We know there are going to be multiple choice, extended response, and also technology-enhanced questions (drawing an angle or plotting graph points on the computer),” Merritt said. “We’re ready and prepared for more rigorous test questions.”

Brian Bickley, an ODE consultant who serves on Ohio’s PARCC implementation committee, said there has never been this level of transparency, with tutorials, practice tests and other tools to help schools understand what’s on the test and how they’re going to be scored.

But, asked if there was enough clarity about what would be on the tests, Estrop wavered.

“I think there has been clarity of the standards, but until we have a year or two of testing under our belts, I suspect we won’t be able to answer that question adequately,” he said. “Standards can be very clear, but test questions sometimes are not clear. It’s going to take teachers and administrators two or three years to get a firm grasp upon the tests.”

Estrop said teachers’ reactions to the practice tests have ranged from, “yes, that’s what we expected, to wow, I didn’t see that coming.”

Shryock agreed that the tests are different from the old OAAs and OGT, and said that is a good thing, because they’re more rigorous.

“What we’re really trying to get at is evidence of student learning,” she said. “Our traditional multiple-choice questions may not be the best way to do that. … We’re eliminating that ability to guess an answer.”

Many school districts will participate in a state-organized test-run on Thursday to see whether computer networks can handle the massive numbers of students taking online tests at the same time.

On the whole, state officials expressed confidence in the new tests Tuesday. ODE spokesman John Charlton said the tests were developed with thousands of hours of input from Ohio educators and will “effectively measure achievement across all levels.”

Estrop, whose district is still doing a mix of paper and online testing, while trying to get last-minute answers on accessibility rules for certain students, has his doubts.

“My frustration is that we’ve hurried into this implementation, rushed into it full force, when I do not believe teachers are ready, administrators are ready, and very frankly, what I see is that the Ohio Department of Education is not ready,” he said.

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