On Sept. 9, 2015 the California Department of Education released the first year’s results of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests in English language arts/literacy and math, which 3.2 million students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 took in the spring. Through the state website, parents and the public are able to view statewide scores, broken down by district and school, for each grade and student subgroup.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the tests.
How do I find out how my child did on the test?
School districts are supposed to send results to parents in the mail.
The state’s contractor, Educational Testing Service, began sending individual, paper reports for each student to school districts starting the week of Aug. 17. After districts received the scores, they had 20 days to send them to parents. So parents started receiving results in September, but in many cases parents will receive the scores later than that.
Parents who have not received scores in the mail should check in with their schools or districts to find out when they can expect to receive them.
How are the tests different from the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests students took through spring of 2013?
The tests are aligned to the new Common Core State Standards in English language arts/literacy and math. Unlike the former pencil-and-paper tests, large sections of these tests are taken on a computer and are adaptive. Adaptive means that if a student answers the question correctly, the next question will be a little bit more difficult. If a student answer incorrectly, or doesn’t answer a question, the next question will be less difficult.
The previous California Standards Tests tests contained all multiple-choice questions. Some of the Smarter Balanced questions require students to briefly explain their thinking and how they arrived at their answers. They are intended to measure a students problem solving and critical thinking skills.
The Smarter Balanced tests are also supposed to provide parents, students and teachers more information than the previous tests about where students are excelling and where they are having difficulties, so that the results can be used to actually help improve the instruction students receive, not just tell them how they did on the tests
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium developed the tests for its 18 member states. California is a leading member of the consortium, which is now based at UCLA. California has renamed its testing system CAASPP, which stands for the California Assessment of Student Performance & Progress. In 2015-16, CAASPP includes the Smarter Balanced tests and the existing California Standards Tests in science test for grades 5, 8 and 10. It also includes other tests for students in special education and those with cognitive disabilities.
Why do only students in grades 3-8 and 11 take the tests?
The federal No Child Left Behind law, or NCLB, requires testing in those grades as one way to measure how students are progressing. Tests are less accurate for students in the earlier grades, and end-of-course tests are typically more appropriate for high school students who do not all take the same classes.
The California State University and most California community colleges are using the grade 11 test to replace the former Early Assessment Program (EAP) tests for determining how prepared students are for college-level work in math and English language arts.
How are the tests scored?
Students will receive an overall score somewhere between 2114 and 2795 for English language arts/literacy and between 2189 and 2862 in math. (Score ranges vary slightly based on grade level.)
Overall scores fall into one of four achievement levels: standard not met, standard nearly met, standard met and standard exceeded. California has chosen these categories instead of more familiar terms, such as proficient and advanced, which other states have adopted, in part to discourage comparisons to earlier standardized tests.
- Standard not met means the student must improve substantially to demonstrate the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in future coursework. In grades 6-8 and 11, a score in this range indicates the student needs to improve substantially to be ready for college after graduation.
- Standard nearly met means the student is close to meeting the achievement standard and may need further development to demonstrate skills and knowledge required for future coursework. In grades 6-8 and 11, a score in this range indicates further development may be needed to succeed in entry-level college courses after graduation.
- Standard met means the student demonstrates skills and knowledge that are likely necessary to succeed in future coursework. In grades 6-8 and 11, this achievement level indicates that the student has demonstrated progress toward mastering skills and knowledge needed to be ready for college after graduation.
- Standard exceeded means the student has surpassed the achievement standard and demonstrates advanced progress toward mastering the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in future coursework. In grades 6-8 and 11, this achievement level also indicates that a student has demonstrated advanced progress toward college readiness after graduation.
The tests are not used to grade students. Students who do not answer a minimum number questions in each subject area of the tests will receive the minimum scores possible.
How long does it take to complete the tests, and how often will students have to take them?
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has designed the tests to be untimed, meaning students should be given as much time as they need to complete them. However, Smarter Balanced has developed estimates for the time each test and component is expected to take by grade level.
The consortium estimates that students in grades 3-5 could spend a total of 7 hours on both tests combined, while students in grades 6-8 could spend about 7½ hours and 11th-graders could take about 8½ hours to complete the tests.
Students are allowed to take breaks during the test. There is no limit on the number of pauses students may take during a test sitting.
The tests are administered each spring during a 12 week window between March and June. It is up to each district to decide when during that window they choose to administer the tests. Students in different grades and classes will take the tests at different times.
Are English learners and students with physical or other disabilities given any additional help to take the test?
The tests offer all students online options that are supposed to help them take the test, such as increasing the size of an image, highlighting words in a passage, a spell check feature, an online calculator and a digital “notepad.”
English learners who have been enrolled in a school in the United States for less than 12 months are exempt from the English language arts/literacy portion of the test. However, all English learners are required to take the math portion, which can be offered to students who need help in both English and Spanish. The tests provide translated test directions in Spanish and a translation glossary in a number of other languages.
Students in special education can have access to other supports such as American Sign Language, Braille, closed captioning and read aloud. See the California Department of Education website for a list of accommodations.
Students in special education who are unable to participate in the Smarter Balanced tests take the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA).
Will schools use these tests to help students who don’t meet the standards?
The tests are expected to provide a detailed analysis of which content areas students are having difficulty with. Because these tests are taken toward the end of the school year, there is little the current teacher can do except perhaps use the tests for placement decisions or assignment to summer school if the teacher gets the information in time. The results also will provide teachers with insights into how they can improve their instruction in areas that scores show require additional attention.
Students’ new teachers the following school year can use test results to create instructional plans to target students’ academic needs and to determine whether they need additional tutoring and other support.
However, educators emphasize that test scores alone do not determine how well an individual child is learning, or whether a child will be held back or promoted. The scores will be used in combination with classroom work and grades, teacher observations and other classroom tests.
Smarter Balanced also offers interim tests that schools can use throughout the year to help teachers determine how well students are benefiting from the instruction they are receiving.
If my child’s score shows he or she didn’t “meet the standard” on the test, what can I do?
Parents should talk with their child’s teacher about how well he or she thinks the test is assessing their child’s knowledge and abilities and what the teacher plans to do to help their child improve. Parents can discuss with the teacher what they can do to support their child’s learning at home.
Parents can also check out the GreatKids website, which has suggestions for how parents can support their children based on subject and grade level.
How will students’ performance on the test in the 11th grade affect their ability to graduate or gain access to state universities?
Currently, test results do not affect a student’s ability to graduate.
Beginning in 2016-17, California’s public colleges and universities will use 11th-grade scores to determine if students are ready for entry-level, credit-bearing courses, and whether they will be exempted from remedial classes. If juniors reach Level 4, the highest possible level, they are considered ready for college-level coursework. Level 3 indicates that students are conditionally ready, or on pace to become ready by the end of their senior year.
The Smarter Balanced tests replace CSU’s Early Assessment Program (EAP) tests.
Will test results be used to evaluate teachers?
No. Test results will not be used formally to evaluate teachers. However, Smarter Balanced scores are supposed to provide teachers with more information than in the past about how their students did. This can provide guidance to teachers on how they can improve their classroom practices.
Some districts will be using the test results as part of discussions with teachers about how they can improve instruction.
Long-standing state law requires that standardized test scores be used in evaluating teachers, though the law doesn’t say how much weight test scores should be given, and many districts don’t factor them in at all.
Will the results have any consequences for schools?
In the past, tests were used to rank every school in the state by assigning it a three-digit score known as the Academic Performance Index. The number was based almost entirely on standardized test scores. When the state stopped giving the STAR tests in English language arts and math two years ago, it discontinued the API. If the State Board of Education takes the advice of its staff, it will not resume the API.
Instead, the state board will adopt a dashboard of measurements, such as graduation rates, attendance rates and the percentage of students passing Advanced Placement exams to judge schools. Smarter Balanced scores will be included, and the state board must decide how much weight to give them. This year’s Smarter Balanced scores will provide the baseline scores from which to measure growth in future years.
State funding to schools will not be affected by student test score results.
Will schools whose students perform poorly get help to improve?
The state has created a new agency, the California Collaborative for Education Excellence, to advise and assist struggling districts in improving teaching and leadership. The emphasis will be on working collaboratively with districts. However, the agency will have a very small staff, and it is still far from clear how many schools it will be able to assist, and in what way it will do so. The emphasis will also be on how the district is doing in meeting its goals, rather than individual schools
State law allows for the both the Collaborative and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to intervene in a school district that is defined as “persistently failing” over a period of several years. However, still to be determined are the procedures for either a school or district to apply for assistance, or the criteria that will be used for the state to intervene in the event a “persistently failing” school district chooses not to voluntarily seek assistance.
Will scores increase after students and schools have experience with the tests?
That is impossible to predict with any certainty, but scores should rise as teachers become more familiar with the Common Core standards and students become familiar with the more complex questions on the tests. For example, in 2003 when the California Standards Tests were introduced, 30 percent of 3rd-graders and 40 percent of 5th-graders scored proficient and above in English language arts. Ten years later, 45 percent of 3rd-graders and 60 percent of 5th-graders scored at a proficient level. There was a similar pattern in math.
And this year, more districts will give interim Smarter Balanced tests during the year as well as practice tests so students will become more familiar with the tests themselves, which should help them manage both the online demands of the test,ii
Can students opt out of the test?
Yes. California law allows parents to submit a written request to schools to excuse their children from state tests for any reason. Although there are no specific consequences for individual students who opt out, many educators say the tests help determine students’ academic strengths and weaknesses so that teachers can create unique instructional plans to help each student succeed.
Those who support standardized testing also contend that by having as many students as possible participate in testing, schools will have a better sense of how their existing resources are working to improve student achievement, and whether they need additional programs and other services to target struggling students.