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September 01. 2014 8:42PM

As school year starts, talk of new testing begins in Manchester

School starts Wednesday in Manchester and several other New Hampshire communities, and for the first time in nine years, teachers won’t be prepping students almost immediately for an hours-long standardized test.

Gone is NECAP, the five-state New England Common Assessment Program that was given in October and created anxiety among school administrators. If test scores were good enough, a principal’s school earned the AYP status — Adequate Yearly Progress.

Low test scores meant being labeled as a School in Need of Improvement and prompted teachers and principals to focus on weak subject areas, and in some cases to change entire curricula.

“Pressurized, high-stakes testing is never fun for the students and staff,” said Patrick Boodey, principal at Woodman Park Elementary School in Dover. “It (NECAP) wasn’t all evil, but at the same time, no one is going to protest its departure.”

Welcome Smarter Balanced Assessment, which is designed by a 21-state consortium to test standards developed by Common Core. It is to be given in grades three through eight and the 11th grade, the same grades as NECAP. It differs in several ways, principals and an education official said last week:

• Timing. It will be given in the spring, during a 12-week period of a school district’s choosing. By May, students will have been in the learning mode for months; principals said they will be tested on material they are simultaneously learning.

“We have a lot better chance with a spring test than a fall test,” said Arthur Adamakos, principal of Manchester Memorial High School, whose school district is seeking a waiver from using the Smarter Balanced test.

• Testing. The test will be taken on a computer, rather than with a pencil and paper. Some questions will be multiple choice, but others will require “constructed responses,” such as typing in the numerical answer to a math problem or a sentence that draws a conclusion from a reading passage.

• Adaptive testing. The more correct answers a student gets, the harder the questions become, and vice versa.

“This means you get a true assessment of where each student is at,” said Scott Mantie, who heads up testing for the state Department of Education.

• Languages. The test is available in English, Spanish and American Sign Language. Translation of words and phrases is available in 10 languages, including Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Punjabi, Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese.

When it comes to state policy, many particulars haven’t been decided yet for Smarter Balanced. For example, education officials have yet to sit down with superintendents and develop a system for grading schools based on results, Mantie said.

School performance will be based on a new touchstone — Annual Measurable Objectives — rather than Adequate Yearly Progress, after New Hampshire received a federal waiver, Mantie said.

Also unclear is whether the 2015 results will even count, or just be used as a base year, he said.

School administrators say they are nervous about Smarter Balanced, mostly because it is new.

“We’re in a gray area right now. We’re actually concerned about the (computer-based) format of Smarter Balanced,” Boodey said.

Principals said they will do the best they can to prepare the students, in part by taking practice tests. At Barnstead Elementary School, for example, students have been taking the NWEA Map test, a computerized test, for several years, Principal Tim Rice said.

Most principals said they expect teachers will give students practice drills on the test.

“I know it’s a dirty word — test prep — but it only makes sense,” Rice said. Sample tests are available for anyone at smarterbalanced.org.

Adamakos points out that, like NECAP, Smarter Balanced has no real consequences for students. He expects Memorial High School would use prizes and other incentives to encourage students to take the test seriously.

Mantie said some states do have consequences for assessments, such as Massachusetts, where students must pass a standardized test to graduate from high school. But he said that is difficult to implement in New Hampshire, where local school districts resist dictates from Concord.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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