California should delay Common Core tests for at least 2 years

Doug McRae

Doug McRae

Since June 2011 when California joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the target date for implementation of computer-adaptive Common Core tests has been spring 2015. With that date now fast approaching, are California schools ready?

My answer is “no.” In my view, the earliest date for valid, reliable, comparable, fair scores from a computerized Common Core statewide testing program will be spring 2017, or possibly even spring 2018.

The fundamentals

There are two fundamental requirements that I believe must be met before California implements Common Core computerized statewide assessments:

  • Common core instruction must be be implemented for all students the entire school year before tests are implemented in the spring.
  • Technology, including human support, needs to be available for all schools during a relatively short window (say 4-5 weeks) when statewide tests will be administered.


Will Common Core instruction be implemented by 2014-15? The answer in most districts is clear: No. Instructional materials for math were approved by the State Board of Education January 2014, and it’s likely that many local districts will need upwards of two years to conduct local adoptions and teacher professional development for the specific materials they adopt. Instructional materials for English Language Arts/English Language Development standards are not scheduled for approval by the State Board until November 2015, with local district adoptions and professional development to follow.

The earliest school year for full Common Core instruction in math will be 2015-16 with statewide assessments in spring 2016. The earliest year for full instruction in Common Core standards for English language arts will be 2016-17 with statewide assessments in spring 2017. Dave Gordon, Sacramento County Superintendent, perhaps said it best in a Sacramento Bee article in mid-February on the relationship between instruction and assessments. Until schools are teaching Common Core in all of their classrooms, Gordon said, “it wouldn’t be fair to test students on skills they haven’t been taught.”

It is true that some schools in California will not wait for the State Board’s adoption of instructional materials before implementing Common Core instruction. However, there is scant evidence this will be the case for the majority of schools in California (see my testimony at the May 7 State Board of Education meeting, here and here).

For technology, including personnel support for technology, the 2014 Smarter Balanced field tests appear to be providing encouraging news although a recent report in the Los Angeles Times on Los Angeles Unified’s field test experiences are discouraging. Additional devices and support are still needed at the local district level, but with short field test administration times, local districts seem to have handled the field test load this spring. At the state level, it appears California has diverted dollars for assessment vendors to upgrade our K-12 high speed network, which provides the main connection to the Internet for many county offices of education and school districts, and the CALPADS data system. These technology strategies have provided plenty of server power to handle peak loads during the field testing window. A more nuanced technology question is whether technology will compromise students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge of the material being tested. That is ultimately a question that can only be answered by studies comparing how the students perform on the same computer-administered and paper-and-pencil tests. However, the results won’t be available until at least late 2015 since full Smarter Balanced tests will not be administered until spring 2015.

A set of school visits I conducted recently suggested that students’ ability to use computer technology does affect their ability to demonstrate achievement, especially at schools with high percentages of low income students and English Learners (see my assessment, which I presented to the State Board).

Additional factors

Several additional factors should play into final decisions for when to implement new statewide assessments:

  • Will test administration times unreasonably intrude on instruction time? While the Smarter Balanced consortium estimates test administration times will be 6 to 10 hours per student, in my view, after carefully reviewing the Smarter Balanced plans, there are reasons to believe actual test administration times will approach 10 to 15 hours. We will not know actual test administration times until the final Smarter Balanced tests are administered.
  • Will costs be reasonable? The governor’s initial budget request suggested Smarter Balanced tests in 2015 will cost $24 per student, but this request appears to be a lowball estimate. In testimony before the Legislature, I estimate the actual costs will likely be $42 per student, translating to tens of millions of additional dollars annually in California.
  • Is it reasonable to expect that California schools will be ready to administer and students will be prepared to take Common Core assessments by the spring of 2015?  For our 1997 standards, the first assessments were implemented in 2003, a 6-year time frame. While Common Core standards were adopted in 2010, fiscal conditions prevented initial implementation activities for Common Core instruction until 2012. By contrast, implementing Common Core computer-adaptive tests to measure Common Core instruction with a 3-year timeline is warp speed, a very dubious proposition.
  • If California did decide to delay implementation of Common Core computerized assessments until spring 2017 or even spring 2018, as I recommend, is there a Plan B to meet federal as well as California statutory requirements for annual assessments? Yes, there is: short paper-and-pencil tests to measure the Common Core can be constructed from the now-mothballed state standardized tests, using only items aligned to the Common Core. These transition tests would maintain achievement trend data from 2003 forward, including data from new computerized Common Core tests when they are implemented, with the exception of a skipped year in 2014. In addition, using existing data from the state tests, we can pre-qualify students for the CAHSEE graduation requirement and eliminate the need to give the high school exit exam to 80 percent of 10th graders, reducing testing time and saving money.


Until districts have implemented Common Core instruction, end of the year tests cannot validly measure how much students can demonstrate what they know. And premature implementation of computerized tests, particularly among low income and English Learner students who have not mastered the new technology, will distort the test results. These and other factors support delaying Smarter Balanced computer-adaptive tests until at least spring 2017, if not spring 2018.

Doug McRae is a retired educational measurement specialist living in Monterey who has served as an educational testing company executive in charge of design and development of K-12 tests widely used across the US, as well as an adviser on the initial design and development of California’s STAR assessment system.

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21 Responses to “California should delay Common Core tests for at least 2 years”

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  1. Cynthia on Feb 26, 2015 at 10:46 pm02/26/2015 10:46 pm

    • 000

    It’s good to see the rest of the world catching up to me. 😉

    In 2012, I called for a 3 year moratorium to the punitive stakes attached to California’s standardized tests:

    Just a few months ago, after much of what I predicted in 2012 came to pass, and after K-12 News Network played a key role in launching the 18 months of investigative journalism surrounding John Deasy’s botched iPad and MiSiS deals, I wrote this op-Ed, “LAUSD Haste Makes Waste”:

    Every district in the entire state of California has the option under AB484 to give paper & pencil SBAC tests if, as is true for many, the technological snafus haven’t been worked out. They can do this for the next three years.

    There’s no need to rush into bad iPad or other deals under some artificial imperative to administer computer-based SBAC tests.

    Get it right the first time by determining the vision for using technology to teach (not test), and figure out the proper funding and other mechanisms instead of dipping into facilities bonds meant for other purposes.


    • Doug McRae on Feb 27, 2015 at 8:44 am02/27/2015 8:44 am

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      Cynthia — I certainly agree with most of your comment, though my perspective comes from the lack of validity of the results due to premature implementation of common core tests before common core instruction is adequately implemented across CA, rather than focused on the problems with initiation of technology-based large scale tests.

      One correction, however, on the ability of local districts to choose paper-and-pencil tests this spring rather than computer-administered tests. The statute governing the program calls for technology-based test administration whenever feasible (I don’t have the exact language at my fingertips, but that is the sentiment). The statute was sponsored by the SSPI, and the CDE has used their influence with the locals to justify technology-based administrations for well over 99 percent of the kids taking SBAC tests this spring. There are substantial equity concerns with this forced feeding of technology-based testing, with substantial concerns that underserved populations such as English learners, students with disabilities, and socio-economic disadvantaged students having less access to technology and thus being at a disadvantage due to the premature forced technology-based testing protocol, thus widening the perceived achievement gap for these students. In any case, local district ability to use paper-and-pencil SBAC tests this spring is not a matter of school or district choice, but rather has been heavily influenced by CDE and SSPI pressures.

      There have been many many red flags over the past several years that SBAC testing this spring will not yield reliable, valid, fair results for CA students, parents, teachers, schools, districts, or aggregate data for subgroups. However, as is said, it is what it is . . . . . and while K-12 leaders in Sacramento should take credit for whatever positives come from the statewide assessment effort this spring, they also should be accountable for whatever negatives come to the forefront . . . . .

  2. el on May 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm05/23/2014 12:50 pm

    • 000

    I would love to see every adult involved in education policy – legislature, state board, school board members, down to administrators and teachers – sit down and take a full session of these new tests on the computer, to give them a sense of what the task is like. Too often people not in the classroom administer education based on their experience as students decades earlier.

    A great many of our elected officials don’t even type their own emails or memos. I think it would be valuable for them to experience some of this learning curve too.

  3. Don on May 21, 2014 at 11:01 am05/21/2014 11:01 am

    • 000

    Since you are arguing over context, can you provide that context, Mr. Herrera?

    Even if Common Core is fully implemented in Sacramento classrooms by next year, will it be fully implemented in all classrooms across the State? The Superintendent made a sensible warning. Is there a reason to back off of it?


    • Floyd Thursby on May 21, 2014 at 11:45 am05/21/2014 11:45 am

      • 000

      Let’s say you have a child in 2d grade this year. You should get the first test results back after 5th grade? Or 6th grade? This is unacceptable. Make it messy, make them suffer, they should have seen it ahead, then they’ll learn not to do things like this again. It’s like City College, they’ll only change if forced. Trust me, even 2018 isn’t sacred, it could be 2020, 2025. The people behind the delay HATE TESTING. They want LIFO forever, no testing, they want to go back to before NCLB. This is hurting my ability to raise my children well. I have made great use of these test results and look forward to receiving them each August. Some people only have 1 child. I have 5. I will not be able to help my youngest two as well as my older ones. I will give them my own tests in my time to try to make up for it, but this is an outrage.

  4. Tim Herrera on May 21, 2014 at 10:29 am05/21/2014 10:29 am

    • 000

    For the record, Superintendent Dave Gordon has corresponded with Doug McRae and has asked that Mr. McRae refrain from using a quote from a February 19, 2014 Sacramento Bee article out of context to justify arguing for a statewide two-year delay of SBAC testing. Clearly, Superintendent Gordon’s comment that “…it wouldn’t be fair to test students on skills they haven’t been taught” was in support of the state’s decision to not publish student scores from this year’s field test. He was not referring to testing for 2014-15 or 2015-16.

    Tim Herrera
    Communications Director
    Sacramento County Office of Education


    • Doug McRae on May 21, 2014 at 10:43 am05/21/2014 10:43 am

      • 000

      Tim: And for the record I replied to Dave’s email that I do not believe I used his 2/19/14 SacBee quote out of context, that it was not limited to the state’s decision not to publish student scores from this year’s field test. I agree with Dave on CA’s decision not to publish student scores (or school or district or statewide aggregate scores)from the SB 2014 field test. If Dave’s wants to clarify his quote, then of course he is welcome to clarify it, but I do think it was a fair quote to use in terms of its focus on the need for common core instruction prior to common core assessments.

    • Don on May 21, 2014 at 4:59 pm05/21/2014 4:59 pm

      • 000

      This is the context:

      “The decision not to calculate student scores on the field test has frustrated some parents, teachers and administrators, especially since STAR testing has been suspended for this year. Phoebe Hearst Elementary School Principal Andrea Egan said she would like to see results at the state level so she can make adjustments before next school year.”

      “But Gordon said offering results would not be wise. “A field test is a tryout of all the test questions,” he said. “Some will work well, some won’t work well and some won’t work at all.” He pointed out that some schools have yet to teach the Common Core Standards in all their classrooms.”

      The point of the quote was that some students hadn’t received the instruction, not that publishing those tests results wouldn’t be fair, which is also true no matter which year is in question. That’s why the quote has a powerful message and wasn’t simply reference to a particular point in time. It speaks to the problem not just in Sacramento but across the state in rolling out large scale testing regimens without due consideration to the needs of teachers and students.

      Mr. Herrera, it wasn’t clear in the least that the quote was arguing “to not publish student scores from this year’s field test.”

      What kind of political gamesmanship is being played here? I’m sure the Superintendent will be driving his 20 mule team full speed to get those teachers on board since that’s the mandate of his colleagues down the street. What a capital idea!

      • Doug McRae on May 22, 2014 at 9:04 am05/22/2014 9:04 am

        • 000

        Don: Thanx for providing context for the Dave Gordon quote I used. Dave had several quotes in the Feb 19 SacBee article, one you just cited on the wisdom of generating results from the field test this spring, and the one I quoted on fairness of implementing tests before implementing instruction. Both quotes are strong statements in support of good K-12 large scale testing practices required by educational measurement standards (i.e., validity, reliability, comparability, fairness) that are also included in CA’s statewide assessment authorizing statutory language. I completely agree with both of Dave’s quotes, and I also wonder why he wants to back away from one of the quotes. I do note that the quote I used does conflict with the SSPI and CDE advocacy for full Smarter Balanced computer-adaptive tests in 2015, and the unfortunate fact that AB 484 sponsored by the SSPI that requires common core tests in 2015 despite the circumstance that common core instruction will not yet be in place statewide. It would have been far better for AB 484 to provide an option for the SBE to delay implementation of full common core tests until common core instruction was implemented, as was done with the CAHSEE authorizing statute in 1999 which called for the CAHSEE graduation requirement starting in 2004 but with an option for delay to 2006. That option was exercised by the SBE, as recommended by the former SSPI who also happened to be the author of the CAHSEE authorizing statute. My commentary clearly supports a delay — far better to do it right than to provide substantially flawed statewide assessment data to millions of students, thousands of schools, hundreds of districts, and tens of millions CA citizens for two or more years.

        • Floyd Thursby on May 22, 2014 at 11:02 am05/22/2014 11:02 am

          • 000

          I hate to be a conspiracy theorist but I think this is something we’re going to hear permanently now, and just where the far left union idealogues want us to be. A pencil and paper test was always fair. Now we have a computer test. We’re just going to hear about how test results aren’t a sign of a kid’s intelligence, work ethic, discipline or character, or ability, but a result of how fast and good the computers at his or her school are, and how fast the home computers they prepare on are, it’s all class and poverty, nothing to do with work ethic, character, hours studies, parenting, or initiative. Or teacher quality, of course that’s taboo to talk about even though LA’s results showed some teachers are far better than others and some young teachers provide over double the value of teachers earning more than them by our outdated and ineffective seniority-based pay system.

  5. Don on May 21, 2014 at 9:38 am05/21/2014 9:38 am

    • 000

    Doug, your recommendation to delay assessments is just too sensible and it highlights what is wrong with this implementation of Smarter Balanced directed in conjunction from the halls of the Capital. I almost hate to have to ask the obvious, but who requires an assessment for instruction not received? – Sacramento politicians bent on pushing the standards and assessments through as expeditiously as possible and damn the torpedoes! Speaking of standards, how can we trust the “Less Smart and Imbalanced” experts in charge if their decisions are politically motivated and not in line with academic assessment professional best practices or even common sense? Perhaps this is why we need standards? I’m sure you would agree that if a teacher gave her class a final exam on material she never covered the parents and students would be up in arms and rightly so. And what are the implications of assessments that don’t live up to professional standards? Severe.

    You said the technology needs to be made available “during a relatively short window (say 4-5 weeks).” You also maintain student technological know-how likely affects assessment outcome. It follows then that students who have access to computers and computer skill-building throughout the year may do better on the assessments than those students who only have access during your recommended and short 4-5 week period. Could you elaborate?

    While I understand your point that the summative assessment is akin to an end-of-year final exam of sorts, the Consortium is developing formative and interim assessments. I assume that this work is optional for school districts.

    Thank you for providing your advice to SBE. It is obvious that they need it whether or not they want it. Personally, I’m flummoxed by this whole affair because, if not done correctly, we are likely to see more fallout than rollout. Seattle and other cities across the country may be just the beginning if they don’t get it right. (And maybe even if they do.)


    • Doug McRae on May 21, 2014 at 10:53 am05/21/2014 10:53 am

      • 000

      Don: Access to computers and computer-skill building before computer-administered assessments is clearly a major equity issue, and very much part of what test developers do to ensure tests are “fair” for all subgroups being tested. I certainly found equity issues for schools serving high concentrations of both low income and EL kids during my limited school visits during the peak of the field testing window several weeks ago, and the L A Times article also documented concerns with equity issues. Elaboration from both of these sources are linked in the commentary.

  6. Floyd Thursby on May 20, 2014 at 1:30 pm05/20/2014 1:30 pm

    • 000

    There are other more creative ways to address instructional time issues. For instance, with 4 furlough days I was very disappointed to see everyone at the middle school level just floating through meaningless days during the final week. How about turn in grades the final day and have tests and instruction the day before? They didn’t make much effort during the furlough to make the furlough days the least important, but now they use testing as a scapegoat. The main reason they resist testing is it ultimately can prove some teachers are way better than others, which the establishment denies.

    As for the delay, this is idiotic. Bring back the STAR test for 2-3 years while you work out the kinks. The STAR test and preparing for it has been incredibly useful to me as a parent. My kids constantly score in the top 3%. I don’t think that’s genetic or even based on the school they go to. I think it is based on their preparing, using prep books, and it has helped my eldest two make it into Lowell. The test gives useful information to parents and parents can do extra work with their kids to improve, which has been shown to work wonders. Every year we have no test hurts children. Just have the STAR test while you bicker about who paid for which computer for a couple years.

  7. Don on May 20, 2014 at 10:30 am05/20/2014 10:30 am

    • 000

    This is my perspective as a parent who has is not overly pro or anti testing in the hypothetical.

    Previously standardized tests have not been employed to assist teachers in tailoring instruction and test results cannot be employed for that purpose until considerably earlier arrival of results and/or a full rollout of early and interim tests which are well integrated into instructional improvement on a per pupil basis. Their prime purpose seems to be have been to identify schools for Program Improvement under NCLB. So, how crucial is testing except to those who seem to be part of its industry?

    My perspective as a parent is that standardized tests have little to do with any integrated effort at schools to further the quality of instruction. Currently they take away from it by eating away at instructional time. I’d feel different if I saw first-hand how testing informed the student and teacher experience.


    • Doug McRae on May 20, 2014 at 12:13 pm05/20/2014 12:13 pm

      • 000

      Don: I’m in favor of good instructional tests for teacher usage, but unfortunately statewide assessments are not good vehicles for that purpose. Rather, statewide assessment programs are end-of-year programs with heavy test security constraints, and both time-of-year and teacher lack to immediate access the specific tests (plus delay in return of results) make any kind of teacher diagnostic use virtually impossible. Statewide assessments across the US are essentially “final exam” tests to find out how much kids have learned, rather than diagnostic tests designed to help teachers teach [except in an after-the-fact way to perhaps adjust instructional practice for the next group of kids, a relatively weak form of diagnostic testing for individual teachers]. My view is we should be clear this is the purpose for statewide testing rather than confuse it with tests designed for instructional use, and then strictly limit statewide tests to a small number of hours [less than 1 percent of instructional time is a common rule, less than 9 hrs of testing) so as not to interfere with instructional time. Lots of folks have claimed they can build tests for both after-the-fact achievement measurement and instructional use, but in my almost 45 years in the K-12 testing arena no one has ever come close to accomplishing this Holy Grail goal, and I cannot forecast that it will happen in the foreseeable future. So, my advice is to accept what statewide tests are designed to do, rather than ask statewide tests to fulfill a function they are not designed to do. Instructional tests, by contrast, are part and parcel of good instruction and good instruction programs, and should be supported under that umbrella rather than under a statewide assessment program umbrella.

  8. Louis Kruger on May 20, 2014 at 10:16 am05/20/2014 10:16 am

    • 000

    Excellent Points! Educators need to advocate for the appropriate use of these types of tests. I have just completed a video, Jesse’s Journey, on how this can be done. Please see:

  9. ann on May 20, 2014 at 7:53 am05/20/2014 7:53 am

    • 000

    Doug has been trying to knock sense into the State Board and Torlackson for a while. They don’t listen. Torlackson responds to CTA’s demand to end STAR prematurely and now, those of us on the ground, can already see and feel the academic accountability fading away.

  10. Doug on May 20, 2014 at 7:04 am05/20/2014 7:04 am

    • 000

    I agree completely for the reasons you stated that the common core testing should be delayed.

    One thing that is not ever mentioned but needs to be addressed is when the tests are being administered, in the students junior year. It would seem that test administration in the students senior or last year of instruction would have tremendous benefits. The most obvious is that senior will now have a challenge to face prior to graduation as opposed to taking the last year “off”. Giving all tests in the spring of the 11th grade sends a truly negative signal to all students that their 12th grade year really does not matter.

    These scores are really used only to grade the schools and their districts, scoring is to be done immediately by computers and the evaluation will be more true by adding that last year of instruction. As a high school teacher, I believe there is no real reason that the grade of test administration cannot be changed prior to the implementation of the smarter balanced testing.


    • Doug McRae on May 20, 2014 at 11:57 am05/20/2014 11:57 am

      • 000

      Doug NoLastName: As a test developer, for many many years I have not been a fan of grade level testing for high schools. Rather, I think end-of-course tests for specific disciplines are far better aligned to instruction, and I’ve thought that aggregate data “by” a given grade level is far more meaningful than grade level tests for aggregate data “at” a given grade level. So, if I had my druthers, I’d focus on end-of-course tests for (say) Algebra and Biology and Am History / World History with aggregate data over several years by grade 12 to test the kids when they take the course, rather than a cross-sectional test for any given grade level. Kids are more incented to pay attention to tests measuring recent instruction than general content area conglomerate tests for individual grade levels. Such a testing program makes more sense to me than grade level testing for high schools, it can be used for accountability purposes such as API and AYP, and it follows a fundamental principle that “instruction must precede assessments” for good alignment of assessments with instruction. Between 10 and 20 states in the US have statewide assessment programs designed along these lines . . . . .

      • el on May 23, 2014 at 12:47 pm05/23/2014 12:47 pm

        • 000

        That makes a lot of sense to me, Doug, and I think it also helps solve some issues related to not letting the gifted kids move on ahead or pushing struggling kids into material that they’re not yet ready to tackle (algebra being the most obvious example). Thanks for the excellent article; I will take the time to read the full report.

      • Floyd Thursby on May 23, 2014 at 2:49 pm05/23/2014 2:49 pm

        • 000

        Doug, the younger grades test ability and studies show focusing on education from a very young age has a very positive impact on children’s intellectual, emotional, psychological and creative development. A child is not only more likely to be a success by standard definitions but also more likely to become a successful artist. Asian Americans are proving this as they are now overrepresented in the arts, when a former criticism leveled against them was that they weren’t focused enough on arts.

        These tests aren’t merely a test of the teachers and school and instruction, which is why to effectively judge teachers you need to consider demographics and improvement. These tests are a test of a child’s character, of the effectiveness and quality of their parenting, and of the quality of their schooling. In the cases where it is purely a test of schooling, they don’t have great parents. I’ve definitely worked hard to improve my children’s ability on these tests.

        We need to raise the b ottom to make not having honors not hurt the advanced kids. We need to shine a light on TV, games, parenting and habits, and ask that in return for the favor we are doing to the disadvantaged kids (eliminating honors), we ask that you turn off the TV, spend Saturdays and evenings studying with your kids, do flash cards when they are young, read parenting books, etc.

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