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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

NECAP on its way out; Online, adaptive test to be in place by 2013-14

The New England Common Assessment Program is on its way out in New Hampshire.

The state Department of Education is planning to implement a new standardized test system to measure reading and math proficiency starting in 2013-14, said Paul Leather, deputy commissioner of education.

The state will discontinue using the NECAP for reading and math after one more round of testing in October, and then roll out the Smarter Balanced Assessment the next school year. Leather described the new test a stronger assessment with no increased cost.

“It will make the data more useful at the classroom and school level, in planning and adjusting the curriculum and instruction,” Leather said.

The state has been using the NECAP since 2005. It is a collaborative assessment, developed with the state departments of education in Vermont and Rhode Island. The NECAP tests students in math and reading and the results are used to determine if schools meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals, which are federally mandated by the No Child Left Behind act.

Leather said the new test will be online and adaptive, which means it will change based on how the student performs. If a student answers a question correctly, the test presents a harder question next; if the student answers a question incorrectly, the next question is a bit easier.

This model is present in several other testing environments, including the Graduate Record Examinations and the Graduate Management Admission Test, which are both administered to graduate school applicants.

The results of the Smarter Balanced Assessment will also be available faster, Leather said, which should help teachers and administrators.

Whether statewide assessments will be possible by the time the new test is set to roll out is in question.

There is support among some in the state Legislature to pull out of No Child Left Behind. The House passed a bill last week that would withdraw New Hampshire from participation going forward.

Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, doesn’t think the bill will pass. Joyce spoke out against the legislation because it would cost the state $60 million in federal funding for public education.

“The pure reason for opposing it is the consequence that we’ll lose that money,” Joyce said. “It’s been coming to schools for almost 50 years.”

If the bill passes, Joyce said he’s not sure what would happen to the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

“I don’t know what the funding levels would be to support something like that,” he said. “I’d like to see an improvement over the current system, and the (Smarter Balanced Assessment) seems like the right direction to go.”

If implemented as planned, the Smarter Balanced Assessment will allow schools to find out if students are performing below or above their grade levels. It will cover language arts and math. New Hampshire would continue using the NECAP for science testing, though science results are not used for accountability purposes.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment would be administered in the spring, as opposed to the NECAP, which is administered in the fall.

Nashua Assistant Superintendent Brian Cochrane said the time change could have both positive and negative effects on students and teachers.

“There’s a notion that spring testing can sometimes bring a ‘cram-it’ mentality,” he said. “With fall testing, you can’t cram for it and it pushes teachers to teach for high-order thinking and retention over a longer term. But all in all, it makes more sense from school-based personnel to switch to a spring assessment.”

The Smarter Balanced test will “ratchet up” expectations in reading and writing, Cochrane said, but New Hampshire is still fortunate in that regard.

“We’ve had pretty robust and challenging assessments, and we also had writing in all of our assessments, while a lot of states went multiple-choice only,” he said. “That is one real strength of what we’ve been doing. It’s less change for us.”

Cochrane does anticipate some technology issues, specifically the need for higher bandwidth capabilities, but students may also need headphones for audio or video clips during the test, as well.

However, it’s too early to anticipate exactly what those problems will be, he said.

“I really believe if we implement the common core well, we will put students in a better place,” he said. “But there will be some growing pains.”

New Hampshire is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium with 27 other states. Each state is working in line with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which has been adopted by 45 states and outlines a consistent framework to prepare students for college and the workforce.

Texas, Minnesota, Alaska, Virginia, and Nebraska have not adopted the initiative, which was coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. There is another similar testing system, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, that 18 other states have adopted and will administer in two or three years.

The state is conducting surveys this winter to find out if school districts have what they need to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessment, or if they require more technology or equipment.

However, the schools won’t need a computer for every student because the test can be done in groups, Leather said.

“It does not require that every student take the test at the same time, as we currently do with the NECAP,” he said.

There is no worry about sharing answers because each students will see different questions depending on how they perform on the test, Cochrane said.

Joyce said he supports the direction of the Smarter Balanced Assessment for its focus on long-term learning.

“We’re eager to be a part of that – to move away from what has been a purely punitive system to one that really focuses on the growth of learning,” he said. “I understand that it will focus on a student’s growth over time and multiple measures of a student’s learning.”

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or