Great uncertainty over direction of state standardized tests

With the statute authorizing state standardized tests due to expire in June 2014, the incoming Legislature is facing some hard decisions on the future of the state testing system: What subjects should be tested, for whom, how often (not every year in every subject, perhaps), at what cost, and, perhaps the biggest question, for what purpose?

The state will likely end up with a hybrid system, a combination of state-created tests and tests designed in partnerships with other states. The principal partnership is Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two multistate consortia with contracts with the U.S. Department of Education to develop an assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Smarter Balanced is designing tests for California and two dozen other states. Its new tests are expected to be more demanding and will require new approaches to teaching. But the tests, due to roll out in spring 2015, will  cover only math and English language arts in grades three through eight and an important 11th grade college and career readiness assessment.

That leaves other grades, starting with 2nd grade, which California currently tests, as well as science, social studies, end-of-course high school exams and CAHSEE, the high school exit exam, along with the redesign of tests for English learners and special education students.

Legislators must decide which tests should be administered with incomplete information; Smarter Balanced officials have acknowledged that the more intricate Common Core assessments, which promise to measure critical thinking and higher-order skills, will take longer and cost more than the current multiple-choice California Standards Tests, which average 8-9 hours per grade (less in elementary, more in high school) and $13 per student. Initial estimates are at least 50 percent more in time and expense for the math and English language arts tests, which will include short and long-response questions requiring that students show and explain the reasons behind their answers.

Over the past year, an advisory committee to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has hashed through the issues during eight day-long meetings. Incorporating the committee’s thoughts  and more than 1,000 public comments that he received, Torlakson will issue a report with his perspective sometime in the next few weeks. But that report is more likely to be outline options than make definitive recommendations, said Torlakson spokesperson Paul Hefner.

The challenge will be to make sound decisions when so much is in flux.

  • California is one of two dozen states taking a lead role in writing the Next Generation Science Standards, based on a framework created by the National Research Council, affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences. Like the Common Core standards, new science standards will stress conceptual knowledge and principles over rote knowledge. The final standards are due to be released by the end of this year. Once they’re complete, California must decide whether to create its own tests or develop them with other states.
  • Earlier this month, the State Board adopted new English Language Development standards for English learners that are aligned to Common Core state standards in reading and writing. New assessments must now be created.
  • In funding Smarter Balanced and PARCC, the other consortium with 23 member states, to create Common Core assessments, Congress required that the tests meet current federal accountability requirements. But Congress has remained deadlocked on reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law, so it’s unclear how much the requirements might change.
  • Smarter Balanced has committed to creating tests that will use online technologies. They not only will be administered on computers, but they’ll also be computer-adaptive – individually tailored, assigning questions based on students’ answers to previous questions. Computer-adaptive tests can reveal how many grades ahead or behind students are; thus, in theory, the 11th grade Smarter Balanced exam could replace the state’s high school exit exam. But computer-adaptive tests also require a much larger library of questions than regular standardized tests, as well as sophisticated software. Skeptics question whether the consortium will fulfill its demanding commitments; even if they do, it’s an open question whether many California districts will have the broadband capacity and the needed computers  by 2015 to administer the test. For those that don’t, Smarter Balanced has promised pen-and-paper tests for three years as a fallback.

“We’re not sure what computer-adaptive can do,” said State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, a member of Torlakson’s Advisory Committee. “Can it really (replace) the exit exam? There are a lot of unknowns: what we can afford, how long Smarter Balanced will take, whether we will have to go to pencil and paper to simulate a computer.”

  • At least in California, the pendulum is swinging in the opposition direction; after a decade of testing under No Child Left Behind and 15 years under California’s STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) system, state policymakers are ready to deemphasize the role of standardized tests in the school accountability system, the API (Academic Performance Index). Last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1458, which will require the use of criteria other than test results for 40 percent of a high school’s API score. Torlakson and the State Board will decide what those measurements will be, with an emphasis on career and college readiness criteria, such as Advanced Placement participation, availability of career and technical education and a school’s dropout rate. Because state and federal accountability systems have been skewed so heavily toward math and English language arts tests, to the detriment of other subjects, Torlakson will recommend to the Legislature giving more weight to exams in history and the sciences.

Combine all of the uncertainties and cross-currents of opinions, and the Legislature will be left with a series of tough questions:

  • What are the tradeoffs, in cost and length of tests, as the state takes the lead from Smarter Balanced and, in state-administered tests, shifts from pure multiple-choice tests toward more complex assessments using short answers and lengthy problem-solving tasks?
  • Can the state afford the money, and schools afford the time, to administer more complex tests in every subject every year?
  • Assuming the state won’t have all new state tests in place by the spring of 2015 – all but a certainty – what should the phase-in period be?
  • Can the Smarter Balanced assessments incorporate the states’ current high school exit exam?
  • Should the test for second grade be a purely diagnostic exam, to inform parents and teachers, and not be included in the state’s school accountability system?
  • Should end-of-course exams in high school, ranging from Biology and Physics to Algebra II and Summative Math,  be turned over to districts to be administered locally and excluded from the state accountability system?
  • Will the state, in order to save money and time on some tests, use matrix sampling, in which all students might take some questions, while other time-consuming portions of the test are given to equivalent samples of students? With matrix sampling, the focus is on school and district scores, not individual test results. (The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, uses matrix sampling.)
  • Will the Smarter Balanced assessments effectively measure career readiness, however it’s defined?

Summing up the dilemma facing the state, Kirst said in an interview, “We haven’t figured all of this out yet. It’s very complex.”

Filed under: Common Core, Federal Education Policy, High-Needs Students, Hot Topics, Special Education, State Board, State Education Policy, STEM, Testing and Accountability

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11 Responses to “Great uncertainty over direction of state standardized tests”

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  1. Chris Stampolis on Jan 9, 2013 at 11:36 pm01/9/2013 11:36 pm

    • 000

    Hello el and a good 2013 to you.

    There is little causal about Algebra 1 in earlier years leading to success because of enrollment itself, with the exception that 7th grade cohorts and 8th grade cohorts of Algebra 1 students may find readiness-leveled classrooms of higher-proficiency students because of the self-selection to earn a spot in the classroom at an earlier age.

    It’s little secret that a 9th grade Algebra 1 public school classroom has a wide range of student proficiencies. Top students in 9th grade Algebra 1 will be in classrooms where more than half the students are questionably ready for the Algebra coursework. In comparison, cohorts of 7th grade Algebra students are surrounded almost exclusively by high proficiency peers. Cohorts of 8th grade Algebra 1 students are surrounded mostly by high proficiency peers, with some lesser prepared students enrolled also. So the prepared 7th graders and 8th graders can create like-level study groups, but even well-prepared 9th graders are less likely to participate in student teams of higher achievers who well understand the subject material and will lift the well-prepared students to higher levels of subject matter competence.

    I respectfully disagree with your suggestion that “writing and communication skills are perhaps more important than algebra.” We cannot have either-or as we look to future jobs. Without math, a student’s option for career paths in engineering, medicine, architecture, laboratory research, environmental science, business management, etc., will be out of reach.

    What jobs will remain? Some sales positions. Retail positions. Some childcare positions. Service roles like bus or train driver. Possibly law-related positions. Some building trades and other manual work positions might be available without math in the future, but carpenters, electricians, concrete workers and car mechanics need to know more and more math to perform their jobs of the future.

    One cannot get into graduate school for an MBA or MPA without decent GRE scores – which require mathematics.

    And, the real evaluation comes after a student leaves 12th grade and prepares for their first post-high-school academic effort. Will students be able to walk onto a community college or university campus and be ready to enroll in degree-applicable courses?

    Our state faces a major challenge in lifting students who come from low parent educational level (PEL) up the proficiency ladder way past the classroom training of their home family leaders. Such students may have loving, supportive, encouraging parents who – despite their graciousness and care – are not sufficiently trained in high school curricula to provide the at-home tutoring/coaching common in higher PEL households.

    Best regards,
    Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, Santa Clara Unified School District * 408-771-6858


    • navigio on Jan 10, 2013 at 10:46 am01/10/2013 10:46 am

      • 000

      Just one comment on the little secret portion.

      What I have found is that schools are segregated based on metrics like this, so in reality, in high-achieving schools you’re simply more likely to have algebra ready kids around you regardless of what grade you take algebra in; conversely so as well. As an example, in the high achieving school in our district almost half the kids take algebra 1 in 7th grade (100% prof rate btw), all the rest take it in 8th. At the low-achieving school across town, no one takes algebra 1 in 7th grade, and virtually all of them take it in 8th (with advanced scores in the single digit rates). In addition, I expect it is not uncommon for Algebra classes to have a mix of both 7th and 8th grade students, at least in those schools where both grades have the opportunity to take it (remember, only a very small percentage of students take it in 7th grade for the average school). So while I agree that this dynamic impacts the environment in 9th grade, I dont think it does as much in individual classrooms (or even schools) in the lower grades.
      Interestingly, I seem to remember that those who pass Algebra 1 by 9th grade have a 70% or so graduation rate. Those who don’t only about 30%. (numbers from memory).

  2. Chris Stampolis on Jan 9, 2013 at 2:19 am01/9/2013 2:19 am

    • 000


    Hello and happy new year.

    Test data shows that students who wait until 9th grade to take Algebra have the least success in Algebra 1 – as measured by end of year test data.

    Those taking 7th grade Algebra 1 achieve highest proficiencies. Those taking 8th grade Algebra 1 achieve modest proficiencies. Those taking Algebra 1 in 9th grade have the lowest proficiencies, with 2/3 never getting anywhere near proficient or advanced in Algebra 1.

    Can someone please explain how we are going to obliterate the achievement gap and ensure that the half of Californians who now leave high school unproficient in Algebra 1 instead will leave high school at least proficient in Algebra 1 and Geometry? If we get Algebra 2 proficiency as well, that will be a bonus.

    Bottom line – of today’s Kindergarteners, what percent will be proficient in Algebra 1 and Geometry when they reach age 18? How do we guide these students now to be ready for degree-applicable coursework when they exit 12th grade and walk onto a college campus in late summer 2025?

    Very practically, what needs to happen in communities, in municipal governments, at churches, in nonprofits, in homes, etc., to lift today’s young ones double, triple, quadruple over the proficiencies of the graduating class of 2012?

    Our state’s community college system will fail if we continue to presume less than 1/4 of high school grads are ready for “college-level” work when they leave high school. The number has to flip to 3/4 readiness from 1/4 readiness. The high school exit exam is unaligned with readiness for college mathematics. Yet demands from industry will be even higher in 12 years as students elsewhere in the world will be prepared to compete with tomorrow’s Californians.

    In our corner of the state, Santa Clara, how to guide the ELL, SED, low-PEL little ones to true college-readiness in 12 years when their parents may be significantly underprepared to assist with anywhere near that level of proficiency at home?

    Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, Santa Clara Unified School District
    408-771-6858 *


    • el on Jan 9, 2013 at 9:05 am01/9/2013 9:05 am

      • 000

      Chris, are you thinking that this is causal, that if only those 9th graders took Algebra 1 in 7th grade they’d be successful?

      I read this data quite differently, that we have a group of kids that go through our system and turn out to be very ready for algebra, and we have those kids take it in 7th grade. The kids that are having more trouble with math in general take it later. I don’t think this data suggests that if you had the successful 7th graders wait until 9th that they’d have less than half proficiency or that if you had the kids who currently take it in 9th grade take it at 7th that they’d be nearly all proficient.

      The elementary curriculum has changed to be much more algebra-friendly, but I’m not sure how many middle school generations actually have been in this curriculum since kindergarten. I think it is less than 5 (and perhaps as small as 1 or 0).

      As far as the issue of our futures… what I see that is most important is that we graduate kids who are ready to learn, who love learning, and who know how to learn new skills. The world is changing and the people who will be most successful aren’t even necessarily the most technical, but the people who are creative and flexible and adaptable. Strong writing and communication skills are perhaps more important than algebra. We need to graduate kids who have a mix of skills, not necessarily every kid with the same skills. And our current push for getting those skills younger and younger may not necessarily be an improvement.

  3. Chris Stampolis on Jan 8, 2013 at 5:54 pm01/8/2013 5:54 pm

    • 000

    The CST/STAR tests have revealed giant proficiency gaps in mathematics and english language arts between Asian-heritage students, “White”/European-heritage students and Latino, African-American and South Pacific Islander students. The CST/STAR tests also have demonstrated that some elementary schools’ efforts lead to higher proficiencies than other schools – regardless of Socio-Economic Disadvantage (SED), Parent Education Levels or English Language Learner status.

    At the end of high school, almost every student in California now faces a college readiness assessment test either at Community College or four-year college/university. The results of that test determine whether a student can enroll in degree-applicable math and english classes or if they have to take many levels of readiness/remedial courses to catch up to what colleges consider to be end-of-12th grade level.

    As a School Board Trustee (and a recent Community College Trustee), I am very concerned the public no longer will receive annual data to demonstrate Algebra proficiencies among high school students. In too many cases, students who do not achieve proficiency in Algebra 1 before the end of 8th grade have a very difficult time achieving proficiency in high school.

    How will removing Algebra 1 tests from high school ENHANCE Algebra 1 proficiencies – especially among the groups and schools that demonstrate consistently poor achievement?

    How will reducing assessments assist teachers to enhance proficiency in the subjects colleges require for degree-applicable/transferable credits?

    I am very concerned that California’s education leaders may choose to prioritize paths that respond to teachers’ job fears – rather than paths that lead to higher student proficiencies. Will less assessments really lead to higher student proficiencies in the subjects required for post-high-school opportunities?

    Our students who will graduate in coming years will have to respond to increasing global competition in a go-go-go-world that seeks technical proficiency and strong analytical skills. Today’s Kindergarteners will graduate high school in 2025. I hope readers agree 2025 will be at least as different from 1990 as 1990 was from 1955. Are we ready – as a nation, as a state – for the new reality? And, are we anticipating the realities of the next 35 years after these kids graduate – 2060? The future children of today’s kindergarteners and today’s toddlers & infants will graduate high school around 2060. The future isn’t that far away. (The parents of many of today’s Kinders graduated high school in the 1990s.)

    We Californians need to lift students several academic levels in one generation – rather than slight academic jumps over several generations. Our kids need diligence and academic focus to compete with the billions of other global citizens whose governments are prioritizing proficiency. I’m fine with including history, sciences, social studies, art, music and world languages in the assessments, but please don’t cut out math and english assessments to get there.

    Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, Santa Clara Unified School District
    408-771-6858 *


    • navigio on Jan 8, 2013 at 10:57 pm01/8/2013 10:57 pm

      • 000

      Hi Chris. Congratulations on your change of venue. It will be interesting to see how/whether it impacts your thinking.

      I need to highlight your statement that we need to lift students several academic levels in one generation.

      I’ve always been struck by the way educational strategies naturally must work their way through a generation. For example, if testing introduces a focus on particular subjects, it seems natural that the first year it is introduced it would have the least impact. More the next year, etc. Especially as those who were not involved in this process for most of their academic career graduate out and are replaced by students who have had more of this kind of focus. It seems at some point, when the entire 13 grades are filled with students who all had a similar experience, only then is it possible to see the full impact of some change. In theory, there is also a parallel effect in that teachers or programs might become more successful over time due to increased experience, efficiency, or similar. In my opinion, if public schools are getting more or less the same kids, we can expect these impacts to reach some kind of equilibrium at some point. And as you endure the impacts of outside forces such as reduced funding and resources (or local funding flexibility), you may even end up going backwards at some point. I think this is one reason there is so much focus on early childhood education nowadays: to try and change the nature of the kids that enter public schools before they get there. Obviously the other way this will change is in the nature of the parents and/or society (eg poverty, parent education, etc). Unfortunately, many of those forces seem to be going the wrong direction. Anyway, the point of all this blather is that if you really expect to see several academic levels of improvement in one generation, given the forces outlined above, what kind of increases in resources and opportunity within public schools do you think will be required to achieve that? If resources, the system and society (the input) stay essentially the same, do you agree there will be some equilibrium at which the schools are simply no longer able to do any better? (better being based on whatever subjective measure is being used to ‘assess’ improvement.) Or do you think the improvement can be a function of improving existing things like teachers and administration? (obviously a bit of a loaded question, but the assumption that improvement can happen means it has to come from somewhere.)

      I am also a bit struck by the nature of technological progress and its impact on specialization. I remember reading somewhere that there was a point in time at which a person could know pretty much everything there was to know (generally speaking–and supposedly it wasn’t all that long ago). As ‘progress’ happened, this became increasingly impossible and the result is naturally increased specialization. So I think its a valid to believe that we can continue to ‘evolve’, specialization-wise, or we can assume we simply need more depth for everybody (seems to be an assumption of the requirements of the future argument). In a sense, even with this increased specialization, the numbers of college degreed people has increased so one could argue that overall ‘depth’ has along with it (though there is a counter argument as to whether the value of those degrees has been maintained). Anyway, I dont mean to argue against the assumption that people need to have increased levels of technical (or some kind of) knowledge moving forward, but I do think there are different ways of looking at that, and divining how that will end up may be mostly a guessing game.

  4. Paul Muench on Nov 26, 2012 at 6:52 pm11/26/2012 6:52 pm

    • 000

    From what I remember it sounds like the smarter balanced assessments are more suited to value added analysis. Is that true?


    • John Fensterwald on Nov 26, 2012 at 9:27 pm11/26/2012 9:27 pm

      • 000

      The scores will be vertically scaled, so that one should be able to track students’ growth from grade to grade, I believe. So in that sense, you are correct.

      • Doug McRae on Nov 27, 2012 at 8:23 am11/27/2012 8:23 am

        • 000

        Paul, John: John is correct that Smarter Balanced promises vertical scaling for its summative tests. But being able to track student data from grade-to-grade (ala CALPADs) and having vertically articulated scores (via vertical scaling or some other adequate statistical method)are only two of the prerequisites needed for value added analyses. A third prerequisite is to be able to validly “attribute” test scores back to individual teachers, to say that an individual teacher is in some senses responsible for a given individual student’s test score or gain score. In this country, we have pretty much “it takes a village to educate a child” approach to K-12 education, rather than a tutorial approach. More that half the time, individual student scores cannot be attributed back to individual teachers in a fair manner. So, we need to distinguish when a test itself has the properties needed to be valid for value added analyses, vs whether use of test scores from the test are valid in terms of fair attribution to individual teachers. The situation is different for value added analyses for schools and/or principals. For schools, clearly the leaders are “repsonsible” for group achievement gains, so provided one can track school scores from year-to-year and the test has adequate vertical articulation from grade-to-grade, we do not have validity issues for use of aggregate test scores to evaluate whole school academic performance.

  5. John Fensterwald on Nov 26, 2012 at 6:11 pm11/26/2012 6:11 pm

    • 000

    Bea: Simply knowing who the good teachers and discussing informally in the break room at school doesn’t do much to improve teaching – and is no substitute for a comprehensive evaluation system.
    But you raise a good question regarding whether results from the Smarter Balanced exams would be more credible than results from CSTs for use — however much weight one attaches — in evaluating teachers. We are probably years away from knowing and establishing enough data to answer that. However, I would assume that the use of matrix sampling, which may be one option that the Legislature will consider for some assessments, would make it difficult to use the results to evaluate teachers.

  6. Bea on Nov 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm11/26/2012 5:31 pm

    • 000

    The elephant in this story is the role of all of these assessments in teacher evaluations. Bill Lucia and Michelle Rhee want all teachers evaluated by test scores in all subjects and all grades, beginning with tiny little second graders.

    Sure looks like the new SMARTER assessments are not ready for primetime. Yet the lobbying continues to raise the stakes on testing. Tell me, how is a paper version of an adaptive test based on new curriculum an accurate tool to assess my kid’s teacher?

    Out here in parent-land we shake our heads. We see billions of $$ headed for the Pearsons for texts, PD and new tests. We see a future of weeks of testing for our kids. We see bonds and parcel taxes to pay for the infrastructure to implement the computer-based tests, but what we don’t see is a whole lot of WHY.

    We know who the good teachers are and we know which teachers show promise and which ones need to move along. Do we really need to have an entire country turn itself inside out to create a testing and accountability scheme that uses our KIDS as the free labor for data points so that the ed reformers can justify more union and teacher bashing?

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