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.”