States' testing exec embraces California's controversial decision for Common Core tests

November 7, 2013

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Joe Willhoft discussed the forthcoming Common Core field test before the State Board.

Joe Willhoft discussed the forthcoming Common Core field test before the State Board.

The executive director of Smarter Balanced, a consortium of states developing the new Common Core assessments, said he supports California’s decision to give the field, or practice, test in the new standards to all students next spring, rather than limit the pilot to a small test group as other states are doing.

“The field test is a great opportunity to pressure-test” districts’ capacity to handle computer-based assessments, Joe Willhoft said in comments Wednesday before the State Board of Education. “I applaud California for its decision to expand to as many schools as possible.”

Willhoft’s remarks won’t solve the state’s conflict over the field test with the U.S. Department of Education, which is threatening to withhold an estimated $45 million it gives the state Department of Education to administer federal Title I programs and standardized tests. But Willhoft did support the state’s reasoning, and he said he wished more of the 26 Smarter Balanced states had followed California’s example.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has offered to exempt school districts and states from giving their state standardized tests for grades 3 through 8 and 11 if they give the Common Core field tests instead. But the one-year federal waiver would be given only if states agreed to give field tests in both English language arts and math. California is requiring that districts give one or the other – but not both. Field tests are used to validate test questions and are a “test of the test” and so don’t provide results that are useful for parents and valid for judging schools’ progress.

State Department of Education officials have said they don’t want to overload school districts that are administering tests by computer for the first time. Willhoft agreed that there are significant benefits from giving the field test a year before the official Smarter Balanced tests in spring 2015. Many states have attempted online testing, and “it didn’t turn out well,” he said, because they hadn’t done a trial run, testing their computers and Internet capacity, anticipating the need to accommodate students with special needs, downloading the secure browser and giving students the experience of signing on to the system and answering more multi-step, complex questions.

Even though a new state law, AB 484, requires all students to take one of the Common Core field tests next spring, no one knows how many schools and districts will be up and ready to do so. Three surveys of districts have produced estimates from 45 to 75 percent of districts.

But for those districts struggling to get ready, help is on the way.

By ending state standardized tests in most subjects under AB 484, the state is saving $34 million out of $51 million budgeted for testing in the current school year. On Wednesday, the State Board voted to direct $22 million of it to help districts prepare for and resolve their technical issues with administering the field test. Under a revised contract, ETS, the state’s testing contractor, has expanded its “help desk” for districts and agreed to send computer experts out into the field to troubleshoot problems. ETS has agreed to create and distribute training materials, do workshops and webcasts to support the installation of the test, help districts administer the test, collect data and then do a follow-up report on what worked and what didn’t.

Doug McRae, a retired standardized testing executive, questioned the amount and the lack of details in the contract, which was not made available to the State Board and the public until the night before the Board vote.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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