California committed to move forward with Common Core tests as planned

August 1, 2013
California plans to roll out computerized testing in 2015. Image from Flickr

California appears poised to move ahead with plans to roll out computerized testing aligned to Common Core standards in 2015. Image from Flickr

Georgia last week became the fifth state to pull out of the nationwide efforts to create the same tests for the new Common Core standards. Indiana is in the process of withdrawing, Florida lawmakers have serious misgivings, notwithstanding full support of former Gov. Jeb Bush, and other states are indicating they may go their own way over concerns of cost and curricular independence.

California is not one of the doubters. The Legislature appears poised to pass legislation this month reaffirming the start of student testing aligned to the Common Core standards in spring 2015. The inclusion of $1.25 billion in the state budget for districts to prepare for the new standards has added momentum for moving ahead.

California is the largest and most critical state in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two state collaboratives preparing assessments in Common Core standards in math and English language arts under a $360 million federal grant. So far, with the exception of Utah, which pulled out earlier this year, Smarter Balanced has remained intact with 22 governing states, although there are rumblings in Michigan, the consortium’s second largest state. Its legislature has voted to ban spending money on the tests, although it may reconsider that decision this fall. Otherwise, the withdrawals have been from the other consortium, PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is now down to 19 member states and the District of Columbia from 26 originally. Indiana and heavyweight Florida belong to PARCC, too. Pennsylvania also has pulled out of both consortia, where it had a lesser status as an advisory partner.

The idea behind the two consortia was to create common tests among states so that student scores could be compared. Under the No Child Left Behind law, each state created its own standards, tests and definitions of proficiency, making comparisons difficult. States also had a perverse incentive to lower standards and establish low bars for proficiency in order to escape NCLB’s sanctions.

Last week, Education Week reported that nearly all of the key education officials in 40 states responding to a survey said they saw little likelihood that the Common Core standards in their states would be “reversed, limited or changed in some way” in the coming school year. The assessments, however, appear more vulnerable.

All of the withdrawals from PARCC so far have been in states with Republican-controlled legislatures with active Tea Party movements. In criticizing the Obama administration’s push for Common Core, conservatives and some anti-testing teacher allies have focused on the funding of the assessment consortia as evidence of federal intrusion in states’ authority to determine what it is taught and tested in the classroom. Opponents also have objected to projected costs of the assessments: between $22.50 and $27.30 per student for Smarter Balanced and $29.95 per student for PARCC. Many states, including California, are paying a lot less now for paper-and-pencil multiple-choice tests; some states plan to hire their own vendors from among the big testing companies waiting in the wings, like ACT and Pearson, to create cheaper versions of the consortiums’ tests. The cost of the tests, California’s first designed to be taken by computer, does not include the hardware and bandwidth required to meet Smarter Balanced’s requirements; those are districts’ responsibility.

Pay more to get more

California’s leaders behind the Common Core have been straightforward that the state will pay more – and should – for better-quality tests. “We have always said that assessments should model high-quality teaching and learning that will take place under Common Core. To do so, you need different kinds of test items, other than multiple choice, that will be more expensive,” said Deputy State Superintendent Deb Sigman.

Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman

The state is now paying about $13 per student or $42 million for the current California Standards Tests that will be replaced by Smarter Balanced tests (English language arts and math for grades 3 through 8 and grade 11). The state is likely to spend at least double that amount; some argue it will pay more.

The basic $22.50 Smarter Balanced charge is for the end-of-the-year tests; for an additional $5 per student, California would get “formative tools,” such as lesson plans and other aids for teachers, and interim tests. Sigman, the top state official working on the switch to Smarter Balanced, is recommending that the state buy the bigger package to take full advantage of classroom tools. Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who is sponsoring AB 484, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s bill on assessments, said Tuesday that she would propose an amendment requiring that the state buy the additional products. 

Smarter Balanced’s price does not include the $3 or $4 extra per student for giving tests with paper and pencil – an option that the consortium allows for the first three years for those districts without enough computers or Internet capacity. Too few districts responded to the initial California survey on technology capability, but it’s safe to predict a significant portion of districts will go with paper the first year.

Then there is the biggest variable: the cost to score the complex questions on the exam that can’t be graded by computer – those requiring students to show their work in math, write essays or brief answers, and perform multi-step problems. It’s these questions, making up about 30 percent of the test, that distinguish the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests from pure multiple-choice assessments. Sigman and supporters assert these test items will help shape how teachers incorporate the Common Core standards in the classroom.

Sigman said Smarter Balanced’s basic price accounts for some human scoring. But it primarily will be the states’ responsibility, through a vendor. Sigman favors using California teachers to score the questions that can’t be done by machine; doing so would help teachers understand how students are learning. But that potentially expensive option, which would have to be negotiated with teachers, is one reason that Doug McRae, a retired executive in the testing field, projects the final cost of Smarter Balanced tests at close to $40 per student – triple what California is paying now.

Arguments for delaying the tests

Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice

McRae and Bill Lucia, the chief executive of the Sacramento-based advocacy group EdVoice and a former executive director of the State Board of Education, have become the chief skeptics of Smarter Balanced, arguing before the State Board and legislative hearings that the state is rushing unwisely to roll out the new tests in spring 2015. With AB 484, Torlakson is proposing to suspend nearly all state tests that are not mandated by Congress under No Child Left Behind and to use the savings to start developing new high school math tests aligned with Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards that the State Board is expected to adopt this fall. Lucia argues it’s bad policy to create a hiatus from high school end-of-course exams and language tests for English learners and to stop state testing of second graders. The state and districts rely on the results of those tests for accountability purposes.

McRae argues that launching the new tests in 2015 will undermine the credibility of the results. Many teachers will not have been trained sufficiently in the new standards and won’t yet have materials and textbooks – even after spending their share of the $1.25 billion in the state budget, about $200 per student, for Common Core. The state’s curriculum frameworks in math, extensive guidelines for teaching the standards, won’t be approved by the State Board until November, and the English language arts frameworks won’t be adopted until 2014, just one year before the tests. Many students won’t be adept in taking computer-based tests, skewing their scores, and many districts won’t have the computing capacity to offer them, McRae said.

Both McRae and Lucia predict that, based on the results of the nationwide pilot tests last spring, Smarter Balanced won’t be able to deliver a sophisticated computer-adaptive test on time. Computer-adaptive assessments individualize test questions to match students’ ability, based on answers to previous questions. They require an extensive bank of items, which McRae says won’t be ready in time. Sigman says Smarter Balanced remains on track, and McRae is wrong.

California critical to Smarter Balanced

Sigman is the point person for Smarter Balanced in California. She co-chairs Smarter Balanced’s nine-person Executive Committee, which includes Beverly Young, the assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs for the California State University System. Other states in PARCC and Smarter Balanced can make the case that they are relinquishing state autonomy to a consortium that will decide what appears on the tests and will define levels of proficiency. But California, with 3.2 million test-eligible students, clearly has clout with Smarter Balanced; its success depends on California’s participation. And California, in turn, is deeply invested in Smarter Balanced’s stability. The ties will become closer after 2014, when the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at UCLA takes over as the administrator for Smarter Balanced, once federal funding runs out. The consortium would take a big financial hit if California were to push back testing the Common Core standards for a year or longer, as McRae proposes.

Sigman insists that her recommendations are based first and foremost on what’s good for California, not the consortium. By spring 2015, It will have been nearly five years since the State Board adopted the Common Core standards. Districts are moving ahead with added resources in implementing the standards.

SB 247, an alternative to Bonilla’s bill, authored by Senate Education Committee Chair Carol Liu, D-Glendale, originally called for delaying launching Common Core tests for two years, but that provision has been stripped, and legislative staff members say they’re not seeing a significant push for a later start.

Bonilla, a former teacher, agrees.

“I believe districts can move quickly ahead once money for professional development gets out there. You shouldn’t hold back districts that are ready for Common Core. If we need to accommodate districts that are not ready (through paper-and-pencil tests), we can meet their needs,” she said. “A delay by the state is not the answer.”

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