State students are starting to take a new set of online exams based on the national Common Core learning standards in reading and math.

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Last week, students in Washington started taking a new set of national exams that, after five years in the making, aim to take standardized testing to a new level with digital bells and whistles designed to customize the experience more than ever before.

The first few thousand students have clicked and typed their way through the new, computerized tests, called Smarter Balanced, which made their official debut in about 60 state school districtsstarting this past Tuesday.

The new exams replaced tests the state used to give, which were based on its own learning standards. Now students’ progress will be measured by how well they learn the new Common Core standards in reading and math, which Washington and most states have agreed to use.

Common Core woes

Among the problems reported during the first week of new Common Core tests in Washington state:

• High-school sophomores who showed up to take the computerized exam Tuesday — the first day of testing — could not access the test because of a programming glitch. That problem was corrected by Thursday morning.

• Some districts reported a glitch that randomly kicked students out of the testing program.

• Others said students who paused the test could not later access the program.

Source: Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

These tests aren’t your average fill-in-the-bubble affairs.

Meant to be taken entirely on computer, Smarter Balanced exams are personalized, giving students harder or easier questions based on how well they’re doing. Answer a question correctly and your next one will be more difficult. Get it wrong, and the computer will give you easier questions.

Students also will see more questions asking them to explain their reasoning and show their work rather than simply picking the right answer from a list. Some questions have more than one correct response, and many require students to do more than just click a single button.

An example: One question on a sample math exam asks middle-school students to solve four equations, then click and drag each equation to spots on a number line that represents the right answer.

By all accounts, the exams are harder than the old statewide tests and are designed to measure critical thinking in addition to basic math and reading skills. Based on results from across 21 states, between 60 and 70 percent of the students who take the Smarter Balanced tests are expected to fail the first time.

The test’s designers say the new exams will give teachers a more accurate picture of what their students know. Results should be available in just weeks — instead of months — after completion, meaning teachers might have a chance to help struggling students before school lets out.

Some experts say Smarter Balanced is a step in the right direction, but some state teachers are skeptical that the tests will be all they’re cracked up to be.

Not all the districts have the technology needed for all students to take the tests online. About 5 percent will take the tests using paper and a pencil this year, missing out on the customized exams and taking a slightly longer version.

Multistep tasks

The makers of Smarter Balanced exams say they don’t just look different from the usual standardized tests, but make students think differently, too.

Test yourself

To try out some questions from the new Common Core tests, visit

In addition to multiple-choice and short-answer questions, students will complete at least two multistep performance tasks — one in math, one in reading. In math, that means solving a complex problem that requires several steps. The language-arts performance tasks ask students to read two or more texts, analyze them, then write an essay.

The adaptive nature of the test — selecting questions for students based on whether they got the last one right or wrong — is new for many students, said Robin Munson, assistant superintendent of assessment at the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Some school districts, including Seattle, give shorter tests that use the same technology, but this is the first time the personalized testing will be used in Washington on a statewide basis.

Requiring students to click on or highlight words in a paragraph to answer a question, instead of picking one answer from a list below the text, are also new features.

That gives the test a more real-life feel than selecting the answer from a list of options, said Tony Alpert, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment consortium, which coordinated the writing of the tests. And, he said, questions like that make it less likely a student will guess the correct answer.

“It’s going to be a hard test for every kid,” Alpert said.

Joan Herman, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at the University of California-Los Angeles, says while it remains to be seen just how helpful the new tests will be, she thinks they are an improvement because they ask students to use what they know, not just regurgitate information.

“It’s that kind of analysis that kids really need,” she said.

She shares some concerns, including that some students, especially the youngest, might not have the necessary computer skills.

“We need to be sure that the technology part of it doesn’t get in the way of kids being able to demonstrate what they know and do,” Herman said.

Teachers’ questions

Some teachers, however, aren’t so sure the tests will be worth the roughly seven hours it takes to administer them.

Jonathan Knapp, head of the Seattle teachers union and a critic of standardized testing, said teachers have one big worry about the new tests.

“Are they going to be any good?” Knapp said. “Are they really smarter, as they’re touted to be?”

Doubts about the their value have led to some push back in Seattle, where teachers at one high school — Nathan Hale — have said they will refuse to give the exam to its juniors. Some Seattle parents say they will refuse to allow their children to take the tests.

Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High School history teacher who in 2013 led a protest against testing that gained national attention, spoke to parents about how to refuse the tests at an event last week.

Any student who refuses to take the new tests will be given a score of zero, which will hurt the school’s overall grade, said Munson, of the state superintendent’s office.

Two Seattle School Board members also suggested suspending the test at a recent meeting, saying it was unreasonably hard, but that proposal failed.

So far, the transition to the new Common Core standards and the Smarter Balanced tests have gone forward without the kind of heated debates and doubts that have raged in a number of other states.

Two bills calling for the state to withdraw from the Common Core died quickly in Olympia this session.

Scores will be used to determine whether students are performing at grade level and which schools are succeeding under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Starting in 2019, all state high-school students must pass the new exams to graduate, although a passing score has yet to be determined.