STAR test scores decline for first time in a decade

August 8, 2013

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Results of the last California standards tests that most students will ever take were also the most disappointing.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or better on the 2013 Standardized Testing and Reporting assessment fell for the first time in more than a decade in results released Thursday.

The decline in STAR test results was slight, an average of less than one percentage point for all tests in all grades, but is noteworthy because there have been gains every year since 2003.

Most of the California standards tests are being phased out starting this year due to the switch to Common Core State Standards. The new assessments for Common Core will begin in 2014-15 and are being developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, in which California has a lead role. Only those standardized tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind law will be given to California students this coming year.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson downplayed the downward turn, saying the scores show “remarkable resilience” following some $20 billion in cuts and 30,000 teacher layoffs in recent years, a drain that is just now turning around due to voter approval of Proposition 30 in November. The initiative will raise millions for schools through temporary increases in sales and income taxes.

“While we all want to see California’s process continue, these results show that in the midst of change and uncertainty, teachers and schools kept their focus on student learning,” Torlakson said in a statement.

“Overall, students held their ground,” concurred Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association. “Some schools have lost entire support systems in that counselors are gone and libraries have closed. We have some of the largest class sizes in the nation and rank near the bottom in per-pupil funding.”

Scores still remain higher than in 2002, the first year STAR tests were fully aligned to state standards. At that time, 35 percent of students scored proficient or above in math, science and English language arts and 29 percent were proficient or better in history and social science.

Source: California Department of Education

About 4.7 million California students took the 2013 exams and 51 percent of them scored proficient or better in math, while 56 percent scored proficient or above in English language arts, 59 percent in science, and 49 percent history and social science.

Even though the percentage of students scoring in the highest levels continued to rise until this year, those increases became smaller in recent years. In 2009, the average gain was 4.25 points. It has fallen every year since then, dropping to an average gain of 2 points in 2012.

Retired test publisher Doug McRae has been analyzing the STAR results annually and has developed a grading system based on the GPA or Grade Point Average scale. He gave this year’s results an F.

“It’s the sort of stuff that when you looked at it four or five years ago, it was pretty minor,” he said, referring to the slowdown in the percentage of students achieving proficiency in recent years. “But over time it’s become significant.” 

Doing the math

One subject that McRae singles out for a closer look is algebra. A state-initiated plan to place more eighth grade students in Algebra I classes has been very successful, based on the number of students taking the Algebra I STAR test. That number jumped from about 16 percent in 1997 to more than two-thirds this year. Even with more students taking the class, proficiency rates for eighth graders increased by 15.5 percentage points during that time.

11th grade math question from Smarter Balanced practice test.

Education consultant John Mockler, former executive director of the State Board of Education and chief architect of Proposition 98, the school finance plan, called the participation gains in Algebra I “the most impressive part of California’s testing system.”

However, Algebra I will be eliminated from the eighth grade curriculum under Common Core, as EdSource Today reported, and the Algebra I standards test will no longer be given. Mockler said it’s very possible that fewer students will take and do well in algebra as a result, but without a state test to measure it, “we just don’t know.”

The STAR results also show that the achievement gap hasn’t abated for African American, Hispanic, low-income and English learner students. In math, for example, Asian students overall increased their proficiency rates by one percentage point, to 78 percent. White students remained the same, at 62 percent. Proficiency rates among low-income; Hispanic and African American students are 43, 42 and 35 percent respectively. Unchanged from last year are rates for low-income and African American students. Proficiency rates are down by 1 percentage point for Hispanic students.

Torlakson cited the transition to Common Core as a second reason that scores fell this year, but analysts doubt that had any impact.

“I’m a little skeptical that Common Core is a big factor, for a couple of reasons,” said Paul Warren, a research associate at the Public Policy Institute of California and a former analyst with the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. “First, (the state Department of Education) found that California’s standards are very similar to Common Core’s. Second, science standards fell and Common Core doesn’t cover science.” The same goes for high school math.

5th grade math question from Smarter Balanced practice test.

Sunset sunrise

There is concern over how well students will do on the first few rounds of Common Core tests, especially after New York state’s dismal performance earlier this week. Even though state officials there warned the public that the first time wouldn’t be pretty, folks were generally outraged when fewer than a third of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded proficiency standards in English language arts and math.

In the spring of 2014, Smarter Balanced will conduct a field test of its assessment involving about 20 percent of participant schools in all member states. California hasn’t yet determined how the field test schools will be selected. The assessment is computer adaptive, which uses a program that adjusts the difficulty of questions based on whether a student correctly answers the previous question. There will also be a traditional pencil-and-paper version available.

Next spring is also when California’s STAR testing program officially ends. Many exams are already riding into the sunset and will no longer be given. Those include:


As of now, the only Common Core standards ready to go are in math and English language arts; history is in the works. Separate science standards are being developed based on the Next Generation Science Standards.

At a Sacramento news conference Thursday morning, Torlakson was asked if he’ll miss the STAR testing program. “It had its value,” he answered, “but I’m not sad to see it go.”

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