Beginning next week, California students will begin taking field tests of the new Smarter Balanced assessments, replacing the mostly multiple choice standardized tests that have been administered in schools for the past 15 years.
This represents a pivotal moment in the rollout of the comprehensive revision of how California tests its students and how it will holds public schools accountable.
Virtually every dimension of its testing and accountability system is in motion. The transition is being driven by several landmark reforms, including the Common Core State Standards, dramatic changes in California’s school finance system, a new statewide assessment system to replace the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, and reforms of the Academic Performance Index (API), the main measure of school performance.
As State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson stated over a year ago, “We must set our sights on a new, more ambitious goal – creating a system that fosters high quality teaching and learning in every classroom.”
Getting there will not be a straightforward task. One challenge is the sheer scale on which all of this must be done –
California has nearly 1,000 local education authorities, 10,000 schools and more than 6 million public school students.
Another challenge is how to balance the development of a uniform testing and accountability system against the diversity of the state’s schools, geography and population.
Yet another is that the legislation driving the reforms has gone into effect at different times, mandating changes to different aspects of the assessment and accountability continuum, and creating some confusion as to how all the pieces of reform mesh with one another.
In order to ensure that the system that is eventually in place is effective, a new EdSource report identifies eight essential principles that will help ensure the state achieves its goal by moving the current testing and accountability system in the following directions:
- From a system with an excessive focus on answering multiple choice questions to one that incorporates multiple measures and that assesses “deeper learning” skills that are needed for students to succeed in college or careers;
- From a system based solely on top-down accountability imposed by Sacramento and Washington to one that incorporates assessments administered at a classroom, school or district level;
- From a system that depends on tests whose results are issued once a year, and typically have no impact on how individual students are taught, to ones that provide more immediate feedback in ways that help children learn and teachers teach more effectively;
- From a system based mainly on external rewards and punishments to one that incorporates intrinsic incentives that motivate change among individual students, teachers and schools;
- From a system that is focused mainly on getting children to perform at a “proficient” level to one that measures growth from year to year, motivates all children to do better, and encourages both students and schools to make progress at whatever level they are currently succeeding;
- From a system that focuses disproportionately on math and English language arts, often at the expense of other aspects of the school curriculum, to a more balanced one that incorporates other key subject areas, especially science;
- From an overly complex system that is hard for ordinary Californians to understand to one that is more transparent and offers a multidimensional portrait of how students and schools are doing in clearer terms and language;
- From a system that uses technology mainly to report results to schools and the public to one that uses technology to provide more immediate feedback to teachers and students and
to track students’ growth and progress through the 12th grade and into college and the workplace.
All this places the burden of responsibility on state education leaders to ensure the moving parts are coordinated with one another and to clarify the timeline for implementation. To ensure success, there needs to be clear oversight of the process and a way to manage the competing interests and complexities that are at play.
After more than a decade of implementing top-down assessments that have failed to deliver on their promises, California now has the opportunity to take the lead in the nation in coming up with a system that not only fairly and accurately measures student and school performance, but also helps contribute more directly to better teaching and learning.
See EdSource’s new report, Reforming Testing and Accountability: Essential Principles for Student Success in California, as well as a an assessment and accountability timeline compiled by EdSource.