This spring Kansas students will take a new standardized test aligned to the nationally crafted Common Core standards.
The test is for Kansas children only – last year state education officials dropped a plan to use the same test as 20 other states. Instead, Kansas is using a new exam, in development now at the University of Kansas.
"So ksassessments.org is where you’re going to find everything we’re working on," says Marianne Perie, director of the Center for Education Testing and Evaluation.
At her office in Lawrence, Perie pulls up the testing engine Kansas teachers and their students are about to become very, very familiar with.
“Math will be about three hours long, and English language arts will be about four hours long,” says Perie.
It’s not the longest standardized test Kansas students have ever taken. But it is the longest test the state has given since switching in 2010 to the Common Core, known here as the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards.
“So this is KITE,” Perie tells me, which is short for the Kansas Interactive Testing Engine.
Kansas was going to take a Common Core test called Smarter Balanced – it’s what kids in Missouri and other states will take in the spring. But when Kansas dropped out last year, the task fell to Perie and her team. She shows me the math test they’re working on right now.
“So here’s an example of an item that has a chart with how many miles Margaret ran every day for three days," she says. "And they ask the student – this is an elementary school student – to order the days from shortest distance to longest distance.”
It's what's called an "ordering item," a new type of question that kids will see on tests this spring.
There are two things that make this test different. The first is the more rigorous content. The second is the type of questions kids will be asked to answer.
“You literally drag the days across, and you change the order of the days,” she says, clicking on a box and moving it to another part of the screen.
“Is that different from how standardized tests have been given, online, in the past?” I ask.
“Absolutely," Perie tells me. "Up until now, we’ve pretty much been just clicking a button.”
Part of the Center for Education Testing and Evaluation’s contract with the state includes making sure these new kinds of test questions are really better for students – that is, researching whether kids learn more if they take tests built like this instead of multiple-choice bubble tests.
So far, the research Perie is doing says yes.
“They like it better, it captures their attention more," says Perie. "It feels like something they do in their day-to-day lives. These kids are growing up so electronically advanced.”
Kansas students are already used to computer tests
I wasn’t sure if I believed Perie when she said kids would like any test better, but I’m not qualified to conduct a research study. So I did the next best thing: I borrowed my coworker’s niece and make her take the practice test Perie showed me.
“So you know you’ll have to take a test at the end of – in the spring? And – ”
But Akita, 9, doesn't let me finish. “We take tests on the computer all the time.”
Akita is in third grade in Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools. She's a really, really good sport because the test I give her is mostly stuff she’ll learn later this year.
“You want to give this one a stab?” I ask. It's a question asking if one number is less than, equal to or greater than another number.
Akita nods. “In first grade, I learned that the alligator – like this – towards the 2 and the 4 because it’s bigger, and the alligator wants to eat the bigger one,” she says, bending her hand to make a greater than sign.
She's right. I ask her if her classmates like the computer tests they take “all the time.”
“Some do, some don’t," says Akita. "But I do.”
“What do you like about it?” I ask.
“After, if you do a good job, you get to play ABCya on the computer,” she says.
Well, there you have it. Learning can be fun.
With independent exam, Kansas' results will be difficult to compare
But there’s a lot riding on kids such as Akita who will be taking Common Core exams for the first time. Their schools and their teachers will be judged on how well they do on these tests. And as one of a handful of states that’s decided to write its own test, Kansas will be judged, too.
Michael Cohen is director of Achieve, a national non-profit that helped develop the Common Core and now helps states with standards and assessments.
“This is a big, bold new step," says Cohen. "We always expected the numbers would bounce around, and they are.”
Kansas is one of about a half dozen states that are keeping the standards, but writing their own tests. Other states are buying a third-party test rather than use one of the two national consortia tests. And, Cohen says, that dilutes the goal a little bit.
“With 12 tests rather than two, it will be harder to compare results across states," says Cohen. "It will be harder for families who move from state to state to really know where their student stands.”
Here in the metro, it would be nice to be able to compare Kansas students to Missouri students.
But it’s not of particular concern to Perie, who tells me Kansas education officials want a test that measures what kids are learning, not how they compare to their peers.
“Here in Kansas, everything needs to be transparent. So I think it is important to think about how tests are developed.”
And that’s why everything Perie’s team is doing is online and available for Kansas parents to check out. Go here to download the KITE testing engine and click here for instructions on how to take a practice test.