MICHIGAN — Next fall, classrooms might not have to sit down with their No. 2 pencils to take the infamous Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), an assessment tool created to monitor and record the knowledge and capabilities of students.

This time next year, in fact, students might be sitting in front of computer screens as they participate in a new assessment program, the Smarter Balanced exam.

The Michigan Department of Education decided that a new assessment was in order soon after implementing the Common Core State Values in 2010. Common Core has created some controversy since its application to school curriculum, but MDE officials feel convinced that the new standards have created a way for teachers and parents to help students become fully prepared for the future and the “real world.”

“The Smarter Balanced Assessment is related to the introduction of the Common Core,” said Tonya Harrison, the director of curriculum at Reed City Area Schools.

In correlation with the relatively new standards, MDE has focused on a new state assessment tool to test K-12 students in place of the standard MEAP test.

Twelve test options were outlined in a report recently issued by Michigan education officials. The Smarter Balanced exam met most of the criteria that MDE focused on, including adherence to Common Core standards and the application of critical thinking skills.

“If Michigan desires to continue in the direction of adopting an online computer-adaptive assessment system with a comparable paper-pencil alternative and re-take option, it appears that the Smarter Balanced solution would be the only one prepared to meet those requirements,” stated a 23-page MDE report released on Dec. 1.

Other contenders that aligned with the standards included tests made by CTB/McGraw-Hill and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Reed City Area Schools participated in a pilot program for the Smarter Balanced exam, testing both third and fourth graders in Language Arts. The pilot was designed to help schools explore the strengths and weaknesses of the new test, as well as allowing for staff to assess what type of changes schools may need to make in order to do well in the exam.

“It’s a computer-enhanced program,” Harrison said. “We found that it’s going to involve more keyboarding skills for the students. We have to look at how to get more components into our everyday classroom. It’s going to test technology readiness—we’re prepared but it’s going to take more teaching.”

In addition to “technology readiness,” the test will implement more critical thinking skills in accordance with the Common Core.

“The test promotes technological capability, and it also promotes critical thinking and provides a more hands-on experience,” Harrison confirmed. “Students have to become more involved in the problem.”

Although the Smarter Balanced exam has not been fully approved by administration, reports released from the MDE suggest that the test will debut in the spring of 2015, rather than the MEAP’s characteristic fall appearance. If anything, the MEAP test will most likely not be administered to Michigan schools again.

“We think it’s positive that the state wants to have a better assessment,” Harrison said. “We, as a district, are planning on a 2014-15 roll-out of the Smarter Balanced exam."