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New tests for JPS: Higher standards on the way with Smarter Balanced Assessments

Jamestown Public Schools is already preparing for new standardized tests, rooted in Common Core State Standards and requiring more analysis and higher order thinking skills than previous tests.

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The Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way for students in grades 3-8 and juniors district-wide, with the first round of testing set for spring 2015.

“Previous North Dakota state assessments were recall-based. Now there’s a lot more — it’s a much higher level of analyzing,” said Superintendent Rob Lech of the new tests. “You have to have more application of knowledge.”

The tests in math and English language arts will be computer-based, though there is an option to take them on paper, which in Jamestown will likely be used only as a last resort, Lech said.

Questions on the tests require students to apply their skills, not just determining answers for problems but showing the processes involved in solving them as well, said Joe Hegland, the district’s director of curriculum and professional development.

They won’t require knowledge alone, but will also ask students to apply and synthesize what they know — which also reflects the shift in emphasis and the increased rigor of the Common Core, Hegland said.

“The standards are higher,” he said, adding that there was “without a doubt” an increase in rigor that will go with the adoption of the tests and their Common Core standards.

Most likely, that will translate to a dip in the school’s standardized testing scores, as the new tests will be implemented for students who have only just begun on the Common Core curriculum — adopted in 2010 and implemented in North Dakota this year.

“The expectation is that scores on the Smarter Balanced Assessments are going to show a decline when compared to previous tests. We’re upping the standards,” Hegland said. “That’s one of the pitfalls in making such a drastic change in the assessments — designing an assessment based on standards that haven’t been implemented yet.”

Common Core has generally moved skills down the grade levels — some math skills formerly taught to seventh-graders will be part of sixth grade math, for example, Hegland said.

“As we transition to a new set of standards, there’s going to be some gaps that we need to address — they used to teach something at one level and now we’re going to teach it at another level,” Lech said. “You have to take time to address those gaps.”

It’s uncertain how much scores will drop, Hegland said.

The new tests also include a renewed emphasis on writing, and different types of writing rather than just literature, with an emphasis on informational writing and synthesizing information from a textbook, Hegland said.

Some of the example questions for 12th-grade language tests on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s website have students sorting through facts and opinions in two articles from a magazine.

Students have to determine what statement would summarize the central idea of one of the articles, and then decide which detail from the article best backs that up.

Another question asks a student to complete a partial paragraph in a letter arguing against a proposed curfew for teens and gives them a list of facts that can be used to do that. Many of the facts aren’t relevant to the paragraph, but to other portions of the letter, and students have to sort out which facts really belong in the specified paragraph.

In the classroom Common Core will mean a lot more work on communication and collaboration, Hegland said.

“Explain. Justify that answer. Give reasons to support (it),” he said, listing skills required for the new tests.

Teachers will also get more of an opportunity to use the test results in the classroom. Throughout the year, there are options for benchmark and interim tests, and teachers will be trained to look at the data from the tests and use it, Hegland said.

“We’re getting smarter about how to use assessments in general,” Hegland said, “giving teachers information they can use that has an impact on their instruction.”

Another question on the language test asks high school seniors to determine the relevance and also the reliability of information available on several websites.

Some computer skills, though not technically part of the tests themselves, will also be required, as most of the tests will be on a computer screen rather than on paper — something which students are probably more comfortable with than their teachers are, Hegland said.

This spring, JPS students will take part in pilot testing for the new assessments, Lech said, and the school will be able to gauge its readiness from an infrastructure standpoint.

 “There’s going to be a transition,” Lech said.

Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by email at