The high-tech successor to California's annual STAR exam has been deployed, and the informal verdicts are in. Mastery of online graphing tools and directional arrows is no sweat, even for students who don't use computers at home. But the content is more challenging -- and at times intriguing.

That's all by design. California and 21 other states have begun trials of the new Smarter Balanced standardized tests that will show not only how much and how well students have learned, but also how well they think and solve problems -- all goals of the Common Core State Standards.

Fourth-graders complete Smarter Balanced practice tests  during Kiki Korakis’  class at Robert Sanders Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., March
Fourth-graders complete Smarter Balanced practice tests during Kiki Korakis' class at Robert Sanders Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., March 26, 2014. (LiPo Ching, Bay Area News Group)

Students are no longer bubbling in circles on a multiple-choice answer sheet. Instead, they're clicking-and-dragging, matching, graphing, filling in boxes and writing reasoned essays in the online-only tests. This year, they're saving time, too. Instead of spending a week or two on state testing, the field test of the new model takes two days of three to four hours each.

At Los Cerros Middle School in Danville, some students preferred the new test to STAR. "One of the kids said, 'I was into it!' which to me meant they were more engaged," said Terry Koehne, a spokesman for San Ramon Unified.

Everywhere, the ramp-up to test day has been a herculean task. Districts had to make sure they had enough bandwidth and computers for the online tests. Teachers had to be trained and students prepared to decipher the problems and navigate the screens.

Evergreen Valley High School in the East Side Union High School District was among the first schools in San Jose to try out the test. It brought in an extra 600 laptops last week because the campus didn't have enough computers on hand for the entire junior class, the only high school grade level tested. Each laptop was turned on and checked the morning before the test, Principal Lauren Kelly said.

Evergreen and Overfelt High, which also took the test, encountered various glitches, said Vicki Ponticelli, East Side's testing coordinator. Some of them stemmed from the network, but most involved the test itself -- on-screen questions that malfunctioned, login difficulties, and help-desk solutions that didn't help. They were mostly minor issues, she said, "but when dealing with thousands of kids, little things add up quickly."

Ultrafast network

Palo Alto Unified started preparing for the tests a few years ago. The district upgraded its wired network to include an ultrafast backbone, 10 gigabits per second at each site and a 1 gigabit per second Internet connection, chief technology officer Ann Dunkin said. Her staff ran trials, simulating having 3,000 students in one classroom taking the test. "We're confident that our network is up to the testing," she said.

Indeed, testing the first classes at Palo Verde, Addison and Fairmeadow elementary schools went smoothly, testing director Diana Wilmot said.

While state teachers worried about students getting confused, it turned out the online interface didn't faze the technorati, even the youngest ones.

The window for field-testing the new assessments, developed by the multistate Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, lasts until June 6. Most schools in the South Bay and Peninsula begin testing the second week of April. The tests are being administered to students in grades 3 through 8, and also to 11th-graders.

No results

At center, 4th grade teacher Kiki Korakis helps Celeste Salcedo, 10, with a Smarter Balanced practice test .
At center, 4th grade teacher Kiki Korakis helps Celeste Salcedo, 10, with a Smarter Balanced practice test . (LiPo Ching)

But none of the exams really count. This year, the students are just testing the tests in English, math or both subjects, about half the length of real tests that will be given next year.

And, to the disappointment of teachers, students, administrators and parents, they will never know how they did on the sample tests. The state is not releasing results it gathers after students hit the "submit" button. That's because the testing gurus want to use the results to refine their exams, which they acknowledge are a still-imperfect measurement of student achievement. There will be no equivalent of STAR test results this year, nor any Academic Performance Index from the state.

"That is one thing the students are asking," said Principal Julie Howard at Robert Sanders Elementary in San Jose. "They want to know the results. We all would like to know."

Last week, Howard checked on fourth graders intently engaged in practice tests on Chromebooks that had just arrived -- the first set of laptops for the East San Jose school, provided by the Mount Pleasant Elementary District. Howard wondered how her students, many lacking computers or Internet at home, would adapt to the brand-new technology.

"Oh, that part is fun," said Destiny Cruz, 10. But the questions, she said, were hard.

Howard reassured her and others, telling them to do their best. After all, the test covers fourth-grade curriculum, but the students have a quarter of the school year left.

In one part, the new test asks students to write a multiple-paragraph essay, citing evidence from sources provided to support their arguments. Such challenges are posed even to elementary students. At Sanders, fourth-graders in Kiki Korakis' class pondered questions like "explain the two ways the U.S. government protected the Grand Canyon" and were asked to use details from a passage they read to support their answers.

The idea is for students to learn even while testing, Wilmot of Palo Alto said. "It's all about trying to bleed the line between instruction and assessment."

Staff writer Theresa Harrington contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.