Twelve Mid-Columbia schools are getting a sneak peek at the state's new standardized tests in the coming weeks.
Students in all three Tri-City school districts, as well as in the Finley, North Franklin and Walla Walla districts, will take part in a pilot of the Smarter Balanced assessments.
The assessments are based on universal education standards being implemented across the nation. More than 160 schools around the state accepted invitations to take part in the pilot and some are still volunteering.
"We need to get this right," state Superintendent Randy Dorn said in a news release. "The successful implementation of Smarter Balanced assessments is a critical part of our goal to ensure all students are ready for college and careers by the time they graduate from high school."
District and school officials said there are some concerns about the challenges the pilot presents, but there are benefits to getting experience with the assessments before they matter.
"We don't get results back but we at least get an opportunity to see what (the assessment) entails," said Mike Harrington, principal at Finley Middle School.
Washington is one of 45 states adopting the Common Core State Standards, which cover the language arts, literacy and mathematics. Once finalized, the Smarter Balanced assessments will replace standardized tests given to third-graders up to high school juniors, including the Measurements of Student Progress, or MSP, and the High School Proficiency Exams, or HSPEs.
State education officials said the trial run of the new online-only assessments is necessary to help its developers, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, work out bugs and other problems before they become the state's new means of measuring student achievement in 18 months.
Along with eighth-graders at Finley Middle School, selected grades at Eastgate, Hawthorne and Ridge View elementary schools in Kennewick will take portions of the pilot.
So will some students at Robert Frost, Rowena Chess, Maya Angelou and Edwin Markham elementary schools in Pasco and William Wiley Elementary School in Richland.
Fifth- and sixth-grade students at Mesa Elementary in the North Franklin School District also will participate with students at Blue Ridge Elementary School and Lincoln High School in Walla Walla.
Taking part in the pilot isn't without its difficulties. The new assessments don't yet replace the standardized tests the state gives students and schools won't see scores from them.
That means they're one more thing to fit into a crowded testing season running from January until May without the benefit of educational feedback, some officials said.
The pilot is online only, just as the assessments will be in the future. Bev Henderson, assessment coordinator for the Kennewick School District, said that isn't a problem now, but it could be a challenge later, especially for smaller, more rural or poorer districts that don't have extensive computer labs available for testing.
Officials said it's also a matter of making sure students are able to effectively take the tests, as the youngest elementary students don't always have good keyboarding skills.
"This will be a relatively new experience for a lot of our students," said Pasco Assistant Superintendent Cal Bacon.
But officials said the opportunity to get an early look at the new assessments is too good to pass up.
Henderson and Harrington said teachers will benefit from seeing what the assessments cover and how they ask questions, providing advance knowledge of how to alter teaching plans.
And while there is concern about how districts will meet the technological needs of giving the assessments, Bacon said that taking part in the pilot will at least give Pasco an idea of what it needs to have implement the assessments later on.
"We want to be as best prepared as we can be," she said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver