Superintendent MillingtonMessage From Our Superintendent

Changing the Culture – and Mindset – Around Common Core Testing

Common Core testing – also known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment “SBAC” – is here to stay, and it’s time that we, as a school district, begin looking at these tests a little differently. 

It’s no secret that it has been the culture among many of our students, a few of our parents, and even some of our teachers that SBAC testing is not particularly important – to a student’s learning or to their future plans. And while that message may have been delivered subtly or even unconsciously, our students have been hearing it loud and clear. 

How do we know this?  Last year, the district adopted an online assessment system to provide teachers with detailed data on their students’ mastery of the Common Core standards.  In addition to helping them understand where the gaps are in student progress towards Common Core mastery, the system also tracked how long it took students to take the SBAC exam. The result: many students were completing the 40-minute test in fewer than 2 minutes – some in less than one minute.

Should we assume that these students are exceptionally bright and simply know this information like the back of their hand? The test scores didn’t indicate that was the case. The more likely scenario is that they simply weren’t taking the exam seriously. And that has repercussions on a number of levels.

First, the Common Core standards are research-based educational content standards that describe a set of learning goals that all American students should achieve so that they will be prepared for college or a career when they graduate. They are guidelines and benchmarks for what each student should learn, and they have been adopted by the Vermont Agency of Education.  To put it bluntly: they are what we will be teaching in the coming months and years, and the SBAC tests will indicate how well we are doing it.

Further, how our students perform on these tests will be measured against how other schools in Vermont and across our region perform, and the results will be publicized. Families moving to or within Vermont not only look at these results, but very often choose a town and school district based on them. The bottom line: high performing school districts attract families that have strong beliefs about the importance of education. These families increase the tax base and create a feedback loop that reinforces and strengthens itself over time. Simply put: a community with strong beliefs about the value of education supports and further increases the strengths of its schools. To get to that point, students must perform well on their assessments, and to get to that point, they must take them seriously.

Second, there is no downside to taking an exam seriously. For students to learn, they must mentally process and work with ideas and concepts. Each time they are called upon to do this, their understanding of those concepts grows as they make more and more connections between what they are learning and their pre-existing mental frameworks of knowledge. Further, each time they think about these ideas, the greater the likelihood they will be retained and available for later recall when needed. Engaging in these assessments is one more opportunity for students to contemplate what they have learned, to make new connections to solidify their understandings, and to make their learning permanent.

The SBAC exams are also important in the planning and preparation of lesson plans. For teachers to evaluate their curricula and its delivery, they need data that reflects the true capabilities of their students relative to what they have been taught. In this manner they are able to identify areas of strength and weakness and address them by creating learning activities that are better honed in their efficacy. When students take these assessments seriously, it provides teachers with the information they need to improve instruction.

Over the course of the coming year, one of our main talking points will be the importance of attending faithfully to the SBAC exams. They are here to stay, and it’s time we began taking them seriously. Doing so will not only increase student learning and retention, but the (extremely positive) impact on our towns and school district over time will be significant. Everyone benefits, and nobody loses, when we take learning, and the assessment of that learning, seriously.

Layne Millington, Superintendent