To give districts breathing room to prepare for complex tests on the Common Core standards and to free up money to do so, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is recommending the suspension after this year of most state standardized tests not mandated by the federal government. He made the recommendations in a lengthy report (download top item) released Tuesday.
If adopted by the Legislature, the report’s dozen recommendations would represent the most sweeping changes to state testing since the adoption of the State Standardized Reporting Program or STAR system in the late 1990s. They would start the transition to a new accountability system, based on different priorities, perhaps with fewer tests or with subject tests not given to every student every year – the operating principle of the current system. Torlakson suggests alternatives in an appendix.
Districts would have to continue offering some tests: math and English language arts assessments in grades three through eight plus grade 11, along with science tests in grades five, eight and ten. All of these are required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
But the state would suspend – and perhaps drop permanently – standardized tests that it has chosen to administer in second grade and suspend most high school end-of-the-year math and science tests, along with social science and history tests currently given in middle school and high school. Within a few years – education officials can’t say how soon – high school tests, say, in Algebra I or Geometry could be replaced by new tests, aligned to Common Core, that the state, perhaps in partnership with other states, would design. Or the Legislature could decide that end-of-year tests in history would be a local district option, no longer tied to a state accountability system. The first priority, said Deb Sigman, deputy superintendent of the state Department of Education, would be to design tests for the Next Generation Science Standards that the State Board of Education is scheduled to adopt this fall. The state would also create new tests for English learners, based on standards adopted last year.
California’s high school exit exam (CAHSEE), a state-imposed test that all seniors must pass to graduate, would continue – but its days are numbered. Torlakson offered several options for replacing it in the report. The state would offer Algebra II and English language arts in 11th grade, along with the Early Assessment Program test that the California State University uses to determine whether incoming students are prepared for college-level courses. But the expectation is that the new 11th grade assessment, based on Common Core standards, would become the key measure of college and career readiness – however the latter is defined.
The heart of the new testing system would be Common Core tests in English language arts and math that California and member states of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are designing. They’ll be administered in third through eighth and 11th grades, starting in spring 2015.
The new standards, stressing problem solving and critical thinking, are demanding, and the new tests, designed to show if students have those skills, will prove challenging. The bulk of questions will still be multiple choice – they remain cheapest to administer and quickest to take, both practical advantages. But they will also include questions requiring short written answers and multiple-step problems, called performance tasks, that require students to apply their knowledge and to explain their thinking. They’re designed to be taken on computers, although districts without the equipment and capacity will be given paper-and-pencil tests for up to three years. Torlakson said Tuesday that he is confident most districts would be computer-ready, since the new tests could be given over a two-week period in a school computer lab. (Nonetheless, credibly comparing scores of districts using old and new technologies will be a major challenge.)
Tests to drive classroom instruction
Torlakson and Sigman, who’s a member of Smarter Balanced’s governing board, are true believers in these types of assessments, which they say will drive how teachers teach. That will be the big benefit, Torlakson said in an introductory letter: “The concept is simple and powerful: if our assessments require students to use problem solving and critical thinking skills to perform well, those same skills are more likely to be taught in our classrooms day in and day out. The goals we set for our assessment system have profound implications for our students and our schools.”
Torlakson is recommending that the Smarter Balanced tests serve as the model for the successors to the California Standards Tests in history and end-of-year tests in high school math and science that would be put on hold after this year. But, as he acknowledged, these assessments would be lengthier and costlier. They’d also come with state-designed interim tests and a library of practice performance tasks that would guide teachers’ instruction.
Suspending more than two dozen end-of-course and grade-level tests, plus tests in Spanish tied to current math and English language arts standards, will free up money that can be put toward developing new assessments or providing training for teachers in Common Core standards; the Legislature will decide how it will be used, said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), who’s chairing the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance. It’s not clear how much that will be; all told, Sigman said, the state is paying $54 million annually to administer the STAR tests and $11 million for the high school exit exam.
One cheaper option
One criticism of the current state and federal accountability systems is that too much focus has been given to math and reading standardized tests, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum. So there’s also talk about giving more emphasis to history, science, technology or the arts, through tests or other measures.
One alternative to cut the time and expense of testing is to test a sampling of students or to administer sections of a test to different groups of students. This option could provide reliable district data, but not classroom or important subgroup data. Individual students would not get test results, and data from this method, called matrix sampling, could not be used for teacher evaluations.
Creating assessments with a goal of promoting high-quality instruction would mark a change in direction from the current system’s goal of strictly measuring the results of instruction. Doug McRae, a retired educational measurement specialist living in Monterey, thinks this shift is misguided.
“Based on many many years designing and developing large scale K-12 testing systems, I can say that the two purposes cited above are mutually incompatible,” he wrote in a critique of the report, which he said had “a strong anti-accountability theme.” He said it would be unwise to suspend the high school end-of-year tests, which have provided useful trend data and closely measure what students are taught.