Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Mother Lode students, take note: The tedious STAR standardized tests are on their way out.

This month local schools will administer the tests for the second-to-last time, making way for the new "Smarter Balanced Assessments" coming spring 2015. Students in second, ninth and 11th grades might even get a reprieve from STAR testing in 2014.

When the new assessments arrive, they'll look nothing like the pencil-and-paper answer sheets that students have been filling in every spring since 1998.

The most obvious change will be in format: All students will start taking their standardized tests on computers within the next few years.

The switch has gotten mostly positive feedback from students and teachers in pilot testing this year, though some are worried about more challenging test questions.

"It is very, very different and very, very cool," said Jamestown Elementary School Principal Brenda Chapman, who oversaw one of Tuolumne County's two pilot tests this spring. "My initial impression is that I really like it."

Jamestown Elementary seventh- and eighth-graders tried portions of the test in a Jamestown Elementary computer lab.

"It's totally their medium," Chapman said. "The adults were nervous, the kids were not. The kids sat down and away they went."

But the digital format isn't the only difference between Smarter Balanced and the STAR tests, which almost all educators agree are outdated, said Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin.

Where STAR tests have students bubble in answers to multiple-choice questions, giving them the option of guessing, Smarter Balanced includes more essays and on-screen interactive tools.

Some questions have more than one correct answer.

"It's not just fill-in-the-blank, 'You'd better get it right or you're a dummy,' " said Soulsbyville Elementary School Superintendent Jeff Winfield, whose school was the second Tuolumne County pilot site this spring. "It was, 'Here's a problem. Let's brainstorm.' "

One sample question asks sixth-graders to determine the best class field trip based on a class vote, the cost per student, distance and - believe it or not - personal preference. Another has fourth-graders write their own ending to a short story.

Some parts of the test will have students work in groups, then go to computers to answer individualized questions, Bulkin said.

"I think the challenge with students will be to get out of this mode of 'multiple choice everything,' " said Soulsbyville math teacher and technology coordinator Anca Husher. "Seeing the multiple choice (questions), if you run out of ideas, you pick an answer. Here, you don't have a choice."

Three Calaveras County school districts and the Calaveras County Office of Education are getting their feet wet with pilot tests this spring.

The stakes will eventually be high. California put the STAR tests in place to comply with No Child Left Behind, which gives schools a passing or failing grade based on their scores.

The state currently tests more grades than are required by No Child Left Behind. California lawmakers are mulling a bill that would, among other things, set aside the STAR tests for those extra grades next year.

If that proposal passes, only third- through eighth-graders and high school sophomores would take the test next year. Sophomores would endure only part of it. Eleventh-graders could still take them as part of an early assessment program for college readiness.

The Smarter Balanced tests go hand-in-hand with the new Common Core State Standards, which will integrate math lessons across grades and have students read more nonfiction.

The national Common Core standards demand more writing in science and math classes, a trend mirrored in the new standardized tests.

'It's not only math, it's a little bit of English,"Husher said of the Smarter Balanced math test. "Essentially, it's life."