(Updated Thursday with additional information. For new version of AB 484, go here).
In order to avoid serving two masters – the old state academic standards and the new multi-state Common Core standards – state leaders are now proposing to discontinue nearly all state standardized tests next spring, including English language arts and math. Instead, districts with technical capacity will be required to give a field or practice Common Core test to prepare for the test’s official introduction in spring 2015.
The new plan significantly expands what Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson had proposed in Assembly Bill 484, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, which would reduce the number of tests. Besides legislative approval, it will require a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, since the state would suspend tests – English language arts and math in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 – required for federal accountability under the No Child Left Behind law.
The State Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday to seek the waiver in concept, even though it didn’t have all the details – specifically amendments under AB 484 – before it. Deputy State Superintendent of Public Instruction Deb Sigman acknowledged that federal officials haven’t indicated whether they’d give permission, since the state is asking for a broader waiver than U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had envisioned.
In July, Duncan announced that, to avoid double testing, he’d grant those schools doing a Common Core field test an exemption from state tests in those subjects. Schools affected would use last year’s test results for NCLB purposes. But Duncan had in mind the 20 percent of students needed for a scientifically valid field test. Torlakson and state leaders want to extend that opportunity to full districts, with half the students taking math and the other half taking English language arts. The state would pay for administering the Common Core tests with the savings from not giving the California Standards Tests. (Los Angeles Unified and the other districts in the California Office to Reform Education want to offer both parts of the test to all students with state funding.) Those districts without the computing capacity to do the computer-based Common Core tests would offer no math or English language arts test for accountability. Districts that wanted to continue to do any of the suspended tests, such as Algebra I or high school science tests, could do so on their own dime.
The plan was hashed out through negotiations with Torlakson’s staff, the Brown administration, State Board members and legislative leaders over the past month. Torlakson said he favored a clean break from the old standards: The aim is “not to look in the rear-view mirror, but to really move ahead,” he said. Sigman said the field test would offer teachers a “rare opportunity” to become acquainted with the new, more challenging Common Core tests. Districts will have a trial run for administering a computer-based test.
In a press conference Thursday, Bonilla characterized the field test as “gift of time to teachers and students,” adding, “We want you to focus on classroom instruction.”
State Board members didn’t need convincing.
Suspending other state tests “sends the clearest message possible that we are serious about implementing Common Core standards,” said State Board member Sue Burr at the board meeting Wednesday.
“It’s time to be serious about implementation,” said Board member Trish Williams. “We send a mixed signal when we use old tests while teaching new materials.”
The only state tests that will be given next spring will be science tests in grades 5, 8 and 10, which are required by the feds, the California high school exit exam, an alternative test for severely cognitively impaired students, and 11th grade exams used for determining placement in California State University and some community colleges.
Schools, districts and Individual students will not get scores back from the field test, Sigman said, because it primarily serves “as a test of the test.” It provides reliability data to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the states-led developer of the test. California is a governing member of Smarter Balanced.
Gap in API scores, results for parents
Suspending most state tests and using the Smarter Balanced field test for Common Core will all but certainly result in a gap in producing the annual Academic Performance Index, the primary performance indicator for schools. It will also mean that parents will not be getting standardized test results this year, with a few exceptions, and schools will not be graded on them as well.
At the State Board meeting, representatives of several children’s advocacy organizations expressed unhappiness with that prospect, while also endorsing the Common Core field test.
Valerie Cuevas, director of external relations for Education Trust-West, said that the state tests provide critical information on which schools are improving and raising student achievement. “Assessments have to be continued, without a year off, for us to do our work,” she said.
Doug McRae, a retired standardized testing company executive, was more accusatory. A lone voice calling for a gradual transition to the Common Core assessments without a hiatus in producing annual test scores, he called widespread use of the field test “an anti-accountability Trojan horse.” It suits those who have opposed using standardized tests to hold schools accountable, he said.
But State Board President Michael Kirst disagreed. “I understand the need for data, but you won’t get reliable data from CSTs (state tests)” when teachers are torn between teaching two sets of standards. “We have to look at whether data needs trump what is best for instruction and not put teachers in a bind.”
The state must design new K-12 tests for the multi-state Next Generation Science Standards that the State Board adopted on Wednesday, new high school math tests aligned to Common Core, new Common Core-aligned tests for English learners and eventually new social studies tests. It will likely be at least three to five years before some of the assessments are revived.
AB 484 will require the state Department of Education to present a master plan for all state assessments to the State Board by March 2016.
John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him or follow him @jfenster.