P/sunny
43°
P/sunny
Hi 59° | Lo 42°

Testing the Test: Hanover Company Says Its Test Is Quicker, and Better for Students

  • Marion Cross School teacher Lisa Holley passes passcodes out to her third-graders for a computerized test they were taking at the school in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Marion Cross School teacher Lisa Holley passes passcodes out to her third-graders for a computerized test they were taking at the school in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marion Cross School teacher Lisa Holley checks in with third-grader Will Taylor while he takes his test in class at the school in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Marion Cross School teacher Lisa Holley checks in with third-grader Will Taylor while he takes his test in class at the school in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marion Cross School third-graders, from left Izak Struthers, Gil Gordon, and Kate French, start up computers to take a computerized test in class after lunch in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014.  The test is administered by Track My Progress, a Lebanon-based company. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Marion Cross School third-graders, from left Izak Struthers, Gil Gordon, and Kate French, start up computers to take a computerized test in class after lunch in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014. The test is administered by Track My Progress, a Lebanon-based company.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marion Cross School teacher Lisa Holley passes passcodes out to her third-graders for a computerized test they were taking at the school in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Marion Cross School teacher Lisa Holley checks in with third-grader Will Taylor while he takes his test in class at the school in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Marion Cross School third-graders, from left Izak Struthers, Gil Gordon, and Kate French, start up computers to take a computerized test in class after lunch in Norwich, Vt., on April 24, 2014.  The test is administered by Track My Progress, a Lebanon-based company. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

After finishing their lunches at their desks, the 18 children in Lisa Holley’s third-grade class filed down to the Marion Cross School’s library. One by one, they went back upstairs clutching a small, inexpensive notebook computer.

Back at their desks, the students popped the computers open, plugged in usernames and passwords given to them by Holley and settled down to take a test.

Holley’s students, like others at Marion Cross in Norwich, still take pencil-and-paper tests. But three times a year they also take short exams online, lasting 20 to 30 minutes, that resemble the tests they will start taking next spring to measure their learning against the Common Core State Standards. The online tests were designed by True Progress LLC, a small Hanover-based company that is trying to provide educators with a way to assess student learning throughout the school year and as a child moves from one grade to the next.

Company founder David Stevens said he was moved to start the company after years of working with students as a teacher and developmental psychologist. Schools regularly create plans to help students learn, but struggle to understand whether those plans work as intended, said Stevens, who started his company in August 2012.

“It was very hard for schools to say whether students were doing better,” he said.

Track My Progress, the assessment system Stevens’ company has developed, is meant to be a universal yardstick to measure learning in reading and math from kindergarten through fifth grade. Tests for sixth grade are being piloted right now, including at Marion Cross, and plans call for extending the tests through seventh and eighth grades, and eventually through high school. Stevens also intends to develop a test to track progress relative to the Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed in parallel to the Common Core.

While most of the company’s business is outside the area, eight Upper Valley schools are using Track My Progress: Marion Cross, Hanover’s Ray School, Thetford Elementary, Hartland Elementary, Newton School in Strafford, State Street School in Windsor, Albert Bridge School in West Windsor and Weathersfield School.

“We’re in the Upper Valley schools because a number of Upper Valley teachers participated in the writing of the test questions,” Stevens said.

The system is in use in large school districts in Georgia, Florida and California, where it isn’t uncommon to have 800 to 1,200 children in an elementary school. “You can imagine the need for an accurate and reliable data system,” Stevens said.

The system works like this: Students take the first tests in math and English language arts early in the school year to set a baseline for the year’s learning. The system allows for four tests a year, taken seasonally, but many schools might use only three, taken in fall, winter and spring.

The tests themselves are relatively brief, and since they’re taken on computer, they’re engaging, Holley and several of her students said. The tests share qualities with the tests designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium that will assess how well Vermont and New Hampshire students are doing relative to the Common Core standards for each grade level.

For example, the Track My Progress tests respond to the answers a child gives. A reading question might consist of a passage with multiple choice answers that test a child’s higher-order thinking, such as an understanding of how a character in the passage was feeling based on what happened. If a child answers correctly, the test might furnish another, similar question, but a wrong answer might yield a different type of question about the same passage, one that tests a student’s ability to glean information from a text.

The adaptive nature of the test is meant to keep children from becoming too frustrated with questions that are beyond them, while giving teachers an idea of what questions their students can and can’t answer.

During the testing last Thursday afternoon, a wide range of questions appeared on the children’s screens. Some were spelling questions, including one that asked the student to complete the sentence, “Please take the (blank) of medicine to help you feel better,” with one of four constructions: spoon, spoons, spoonful or spoonfully.

Another question instructed students to read a story titled “The Woodpecker, the Turtle and the Deer.” The three animals team up to escape from a hunter and the question read, “What does the hunter do at the end of the story?” (Of the four multiple choice answers, the correct one was “He goes home with nothing.”)

Lisa Holley’s students said they liked the tests, mainly because they’re on a computer.

“I think they’re pretty easy, because they’re sort of simple questions,” said Gil Gordon, 9, who finished his test quickly and moved on to the next project.

What makes the test more useful for Holley and other teachers is how quickly the data is available. Logging onto the Track My Progress website about an hour after her students finished the test, Holley could see scores for each of her students. The website allows her to look into the test results for each child and see exactly where they’re struggling, and she can look at data for the entire class to see if there are areas in which she needs to enhance instruction.

“It gives you the progress that you as a teacher and your class are making, both as a class and as individuals,” Holley said.

At Marion Cross, a few teachers started piloting Track My Progress last year, but it spread quickly, said Principal Bill Hammond. Now it is in nearly every classroom.

“I think it’s been extraordinary,” Hammond said.

He cited the example of a student last year who had been struggling with reading. When the Track My Progress test showed was that he was capable of the work, teachers were able to identify classroom behavior as the barrier to learning.

The Track My Progress scores have correlated with student scores on the annual NECAP tests, which means schools can get an idea of how students are doing with short tests, Hammond said. “We don’t need to do the whole two-hour tests,” he said.

Nationally, the money spent on testing has been a point of criticism. Stevens pointed out that the makers of high-stakes tests have fared well under the current regime of tests that both measure learning and hold schools accountable.

“The testing is designed for (school) accountability, which is not a reliable or fair use of test data,” he said. In his view, the best use of tests is to improve student learning.

True Progress plans to hold costs for its testing system to $4 per student per year, Stevens said. Because it’s piloting the tests, Marion Cross School is using them for free so far, but the cost seems reasonable, Hammond said.

Teaching has been moving toward addressing the needs of individual students, Hammond said, and Track My Progress fits in that effort.

“I just think in general you like to get information so you can help students,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.