Smarter Balanced Assessment — Delaware Standardized Testing

Delaware’s test tableau

This is the first school year for the newly dubbed Delaware System of Student Assessments (DeSSA). The main event is the piloting of the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA), a computer-administered test developed to measure the effectiveness of the relatively new Common Core curriculum. Delaware is one of 17 states in the SBA consortium. Students in grades 3, 5, 8, 9 and 11 will test in English, language arts and mathematics. The new format — which builds on the familiar multiple-choice format by adding an in-depth, written-response component — is 
expected to challenge students’ critical thinking in a way the test it replaces, the DCAS (Delaware Comprehensive Assessment), did not.

Though DCAS is no longer the primary state assessment, its impact lingers in certain subject areas. This year, it will continue to measure proficiency in social studies in grades 4 and 7, and science in grades 5, 8 and 10. 

End of Course Assessments are administered to a wide swath of students in math and English language arts/literacy (grades 3 through 8 and 11), science (grades 5, 8 and 10), social studies (grades 4 and 7) and US history (eligible high schoolers). 

Eleventh graders are also required to take the college-entrance ACT and/or SAT exams (which are optional in neighboring NJ and PA public schools). 

How are scores used?

That is a lot of testing — and a ton of numbers to crunch. 

In Delaware, each of the 19 school districts may determine how scores are used. “As of now, we do not have any student accountability tied to the tests,” says Delaware State PTA President Terri Hodges, PhD. “Student performance has been directly tied to teacher evaluation and promotion,” a controversial stance that a cadre of lawmakers and educators are looking to redress. In mid-March, the DE Department of Education, backed by 24 state legislators, officially filed for an extension with the federal government to delay the use of SBA scores to punish or reward teachers until 2017 at the earliest.

Standardized test scores also help determine a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in reading and math, which requires a certain percentage of students to record advanced or proficient levels.  Schools that repeatedly fail to meet score benchmarks have faced sanctions that negatively impact students — loss of school funding, restaffing, even closure. 

To wit, low DCAS scores have been cited as a factor in the closing of certain state charter schools and the selection of six Wilmington public schools as “Priority Schools” slated for a state-funded turnaround effort. Because of the increased level of difficulty, SBA developers expect just a third to half of all takers to score “proficient” on the newer, longer assessment.

The gamut of opinion

Given the way standardized testing affects their job, educators are intimately involved in the testing debate. "Too much testing, and the high stakes often attached to the results, has diminished our students' love of learning and our educators’ love of teaching," said Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association public-ed union.

Count Governor Jack Markell in the camp that recognizes the value of standardized testing when used in a constructive manner. " Our educators, our students and their parents all deserve the benefits of effective assessments that show when students are excelling and when they need extra support," he said. "At the same time, tests that don't add meaningfully to the learning process mean less time for students to receive the instruction and support they need."

In order to determine the efficacy of and eliminate redundancy in Delaware’s overall testing regimen, a four-month, $350,000 government-review effort is currently under way statewide. Based on the results, said Secretary of Education Mark Murphy, individual school districts can decide to eliminate tests that duplicate standards tested on the SBA.

Next page: Objections raised and opt-out parameters


Objections raised

Hodges says the Delaware PTA believes that testing would be more useful if scores were released during the school year rather than in the summer, so teachers could use the results to circle back to areas where students need extra instruction.

Other parent objections to testing include:

  • time lost in the computer lab where tests are administered
  • the inclination to “teach to the test” 
  • failing to improve educational outcomes by narrowing topics taught to just those covered by the test
  • increasing costs to districts for test-administration infrastructure 
  • the way test prep absorbs professional-development time 
  • the stress standardized testing places on students
  • privacy concerns — educators have confirmed that the testing company Pearson has been monitoring social media for posts or images about its tests, adding a layer of Big Brother oversight detractors worry may become a widespread problem.

“My kids don't like the testing. They complain a lot and don't want to do it,” says a mom of three who requested anonymity. “My son resents it so much, he has purposely done badly, drawing patterns with the dots rather than attempting the test.”

Opting out 

Nationwide, parents who feel standardized testing is doing more harm than good are uniting through social media in a grass-roots opt-out movement. However, because schools could jeopardize their ranking — and, in turn, their funding — if less than 95 percent of students participate, test refusal is not made easy. 

Delaware students are not allowed to opt out except in cases of severe cognitive disabilities or limited medical conditions that prevent them from testing. Although many parents with children who do not have these exceptions are interested in opting out, Hodges says the Board of Education’s response is that doing so puts them in violation of state law. 

A bill that would formally allow parents to opt out is currently awaiting hearing in the House Education Committee, chaired by State Rep. Earl Jaques — who is not a fan of the tactic but is among 
the lawmakers supporting the teacher-evaluation extension. 

“To me, opt-out is admitting failure," Jaques has stated. “[It's] saying, ‘Oh, I can't measure up. I'm not good enough to be able to take this test.’ That's not the American way."  

Categories: Education Features