Smarter Balanced Q&A with Dr. Nyland

Dr. Larry Nyland
Learning, growth and change are an important part of life – for students and for adults. A “growth mindset” approach suggests that we do better in life when we approach new situations believing we can learn and grow.

Each spring, our state requires all districts to administer assessments in mathematics and English language arts (ELA) for grades 3-8 and 10-11. Seattle Public Schools encourages students, teachers and parents to adopt a positive growth approach to the state-mandated assessments, called Smarter Balanced. Those students who approach testing with fear or a negative attitude, often do perform less well. We know that a positive growth mindset is a good skill for assessments and for life.

Nevertheless, we recognize that spring can be a challenging time for schools. We close out one year and plan for the year ahead. We finish report cards and teacher evaluations. And we administer required state assessments. While the requirement to assess students is not new, Smarter Balanced is new in content and format, which adds to the challenge.

Listed below are several of the questions we have heard with regard to the Smarter Balanced assessments.


What are Smarter Balanced assessments?

Smarter Balanced assessments are the state-required tests in mathematics and English language arts (ELA) for grades 3-8 and grades 11-10. They are aligned to the Washington state College and Career Readiness Standards (i.e. Common Core) the state adopted a few years ago. Smarter Balanced assessments were piloted over two years and were officially administered in spring 2015 as a statewide assessment in Washington and nearly two dozen other states.


Do schools have to give this test?

Yes, this is a state assessment and a federal requirement.


What happens if the district doesn't give the test?

We jeopardize our federal funding. In order to receive federal funding for schools, all states and school districts are required to administer tests that measure students' career and college readiness. However, it's not just about funding. Without these assessments, teachers and families would not have a common measure of how students are progressing toward our academic goals. The results help teachers and principals determine which resources and supports are needed to close achievement gaps and accelerate learning for all students in our district.


Is this a harder test?

Smarter Balanced does measure more rigorous standards than previous state assessments. The current assessments require students to demonstrate more complex thinking.

For example, students will not be able to rely as much on process-of-elimination to find an answer. The current assessments include multiple choice questions with more than one correct answer and performance tasks that present a real-world scenario or in-depth task that requires students to demonstrate higher-level thinking (and extended writing in English language arts).

Math assessments require students to demonstrate deeper mathematical understanding and solve problems that involve multiple steps.

You can take a look for yourself by taking a practice test (click the icon at right) or viewing our video, available on our main Smarter Balanced web page. The 11th grade Smarter Balanced assessment is designed to measure whether students are ready for college-level coursework. Previous high school assessments only assessed whether students had achieved a 10th grade level of basic academic proficiency.

You can take a practice test on the Washington Comprehensive Assessment Program website


What makes the tests "Smarter"?

We believe the assessments are “smarter” in several ways:

  • The assessment adjusts to each student's individual skill and ability. If the student gets an answer wrong, the assessment offers an easier item. If the student gets an answer right, the assessment offers a harder item. This means the assessment will generate questions that are closer to the student's actual ability and therefore should be a less stressful experience.
  • Smarter Balanced assessments are more interactive and include new types of test items apart from traditional multiple-choice. For example, students may be asked to drag-and-drop answers, complete a mathematical chart or highlight evidence from a reading passage. These new item types and formats are not just novel, but are designed to better assess more complex skills and thinking.
  • The computer-based test platform offers supports for all students, such as built-in digital calculators and text highlighters, as well as specific accommodations for students with special needs.
  • Unlike previous state tests, Smarter Balanced assessments are also designed as a true growth measure. The assessment will report scores on a grade-level scale that enables teachers, families, and students to compare progress from year to year as students advance toward college and career readiness.
  • And, because they are computerized, results will come back within weeks rather than months.

I am afraid that the Smarter Balanced assessment will be overwhelming to my child, which will be reflected in the score. What if my child is not computer savvy or has special needs?

The test will provide diagnostics to help your child's teacher better address any learning gaps your child may have, and our schools are working to ensure all students are ready to take the tests:

  • Schools have been providing keyboarding practice, and younger students aren't expected to type extensively or quickly. The district bought 15,000 licenses for software that teaches keyboarding to students.
  • Schools have also scheduled time for students to take training tests so they are prepared for the format.
  • Smarter Balanced offers a number of accommodations for students with special needs, and our specialists have been working to make sure these are place when testing begins. The interactive nature of the test also adjusts to the skill level of the student, making the assessment less frustrating and more appropriate for each student.

How long does the test take?

Individual student testing times are comparable to previous state testing. Smarter Balanced is estimated to take seven to eight hours per student, depending on grade level, for both the language arts and math portions combined. Despite the fact that individual testing times are similar to previous tests, Smarter Balanced is more challenging for schools to schedule because students require online access.


How is the district addressing the challenges around scheduling and administering these online assessments?

Computer lab scheduling will vary by school, but the district has taken several measures for more efficient testing:

  • A new login was developed that streamlines the process of accessing test sessions by students.  
  • Wi-Fi upgrades at about three quarters of our schools should minimize problems and improve performance of technology devices.
  • The district analyzed each school's testing times using current devices to determine how to move closer to the goal of testing within three weeks. After the analysis, the district sent 1,000 iPad keyboards and 2,700 laptops to schools identified as most needing support. When testing is completed, schools can use the devices for instruction.

What about college admissions? Will Smarter Balanced scores be sent to colleges?

No, scores will not be sent or used for admission. High school transcripts record whether students have passed any state exams required for graduation, but they do not record the actual scores. The Smarter Balanced assessment for English Language Arts is a graduation requirement for the class of 2017 and beyond. The Smarter Balanced assessments for English Language arts and math are graduation requirements for the class of 2019 and beyond.


How will Smarter Balanced scores impact teacher evaluation?

Seattle's teacher evaluation process does not use state assessment scores directly to evaluate teachers; lower-than-expected student progress on state assessments are used only to trigger a second look at the teacher's instructional practice through classroom observations and feedback provided by school administrators. A teacher's evaluator can move a teacher to a more comprehensive evaluation process if concerns about instructional practice are triggered by lower-than-expected test scores.


Can parents opt out/refuse to let students take Smarter Balanced?

Yes, parents must submit a signed and dated written request or complete a form accessible on the Smarter Balanced web page if they wish to opt out/refuse to let their child participate. That said, it would be good to participate for several reasons.

  • Refusing to take the assessment means that your child will receive a zero on his or her score report, and the child's school will be penalized in state and national reporting.
  • The assessments provide the diagnostics we need to help your child learn better.
  • High school students who score a 3 or 4 on the tests will automatically be placed in college-level math and English language classes with state community and technical colleges and public four-year universities. This will save students and families the need (and cost) of taking placement tests and remedial courses.

What other assessments does the district use?

State assessments such as Smarter Balanced tend to be a look in the “rearview mirror” because they are administered toward the end of the year. The district has begun offering brief “interim” assessments that can be given several times during the year to show progress and help teachers know which interventions are necessary. The district plans to replace the MAP assessment with these interim assessments that are geared toward our academic standards. About half of our schools opted to use these new interim assessments in this first year.


What is the rationale for interim assessments?

Research says that feedback about student learning and students tracking their own learning are THE top factors in improving achievement. Teachers use results from interim assessments to discuss learning progress with students and with other teachers, and to adjust their instructional planning to close gaps identified by the assessments.


How much time do the interim assessments take?

They generally take about one hour each for reading and math. They are given in September, November and February to measure progress, so that's about six hours of additional assessment time total all year.


What about the SAT? Why do we give that?

Seventy-five percent of all new family wage jobs will require SOME college. The SAT provides readiness information to students and colleges and is one of the most widely used college admission tests in the country. SAT School Day was offered for the first time district wide this year to increase equitable access to college. All 11th grade students were able to test and send score reports to colleges at no cost to families.


What about test fatigue? Don't we do way too much testing?

The total amount of state- and district-required testing is less than 2 percent of the students’ total time in school. Done well, assessments help focus and direct more of our teaching time on filling gaps and less on redundancy. They provide meaningful feedback to students, teachers, and families on where students need to go as well as how far they've come.

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