By Kimberly Schafer
Brimming with excitement, I led my students through the Field Test of the new Smarter Balanced assessment this spring. This was the next step in an important journey to implement the Idaho Common Core standards. As a teacher of gifted and talented middle school students for the last 11 years, I have found the Common Core standards to be a refreshing and important step in education. The standards brought to the general student population what I have been doing for gifted students for years—deep and meaningful exploration of great texts and themes, with high expectations for writing, language, and speaking.
I knew from the start that I wanted to be part of these new standards and assessments. My journey so far has included four critical steps.
- Working on my district’s committee to rewrite and align our curriculum. We made thoughtful decisions that were guided by the standards but still tailored to the specific needs of our students, our district, and our community.
- Participating in the Smarter Balanced Pilot Test in the spring of 2013. When provided this opportunity, I jumped at the chance for my students to see this new assessment. I was amazed at their responses—one student said it was the most fun he’s had taking a test and another said the test “cared” because it gave him a chance to defend his answers. We are on to something when students are engaged and excited about an assessment that really makes them think and respond.
- Helping to write English language arts (ELA) items. When given the chance to do ELA item writing, I was again eager to be involved and was excited to learn about and have a part in creating this meaningful assessment. I was not disappointed! Despite feeling a bit daunted by the item-writing task in front of me, I was confident that Smarter Balanced was the right direction. This assessment asks students to think and make connections between multiple complex texts and present their ideas in a variety of formats. It asks students to create thoughtful responses. This is significantly different from the multiple-choice assessments we’ve been giving for years.
- Preparing for—and helping to proctor—the Smarter Balanced Field Test. With my understanding of the standards and my awareness from item writing, I felt confident that my daily approach to teaching was the preparation my students needed for the Field Test. On a daily basis, I ask my students to read carefully and justify their inferences and conclusions with evidence from the text. Why is the word I say most often, as I constantly ask my students to connect and defend their ideas. My students were nervous going into the test, as they knew it was going to be very different from prior state assessments. Upon their return from the test, however, the feedback was reassuring: “It was just like the things you make us do every day, Mrs. Schafer.”
I know there are challenges in this journey to implement new academic standards and improved assessments. Not all students are as prepared and willing to tackle an academic task as my students. I was the proctor in a classroom where students were not as enthusiastic as my students, but most of them were still engaged and giving the test their full efforts. The shift in test expectations was evident on many students’ faces, as they were now being asked to do much more than answer multiple-choice questions. Getting middle school students to slow down and read instructions is always tough, so this too will be an aspect we need to work on. And, of course, the discussions about class time and the necessary computer access for the Smarter Balanced assessment will continue. Despite these concerns, however, I am still standing behind this new assessment 100 percent. Change can be difficult, but change is vital, especially in education. I have one of the most important roles in society and I take my job seriously. I am excited to be part of this next step.
Kimberly Schafer is an English language arts (ELA) teacher for grades 6–8 at Lake Hazel Middle School in Meridian, Idaho, where she has taught for 11 years. She is the ELA department chair and the facilitator of the gifted or talented/challenge program. Shafer was also voted Lake Hazel Middle School Teacher of the Year for 2012–2013.