What's next for standardized testing in California?

October 22, 2013
Credit: iStockphoto.com

California students will take far fewer standardized tests for the next few years. Credit: iStockphoto.com

Like high school graduates who pause to figure out what to do in life, most standardized tests in California and the Academic Performance Index that measures them are about to take a gap year – or longer – to give the State Board of Education and legislators time to decide what comes next now that the state’s current testing program is ending.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that effectively terminates the California Standards Tests, or CSTs, and other assessments that formed the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program, known as STAR, for the past 15 years.

Assembly Bill 484 gives the state two years to create a master plan for future state tests and an unspecified period after that to implement the plan. And it gives the State Board the power for the next two years to suspend the Academic Performance Index, the three-digit number that is based on the test results and that defines schools’ and districts’ performance.

It will be years before it’s clear what standardized tests in California will look like. What follows are some of the questions raised by AB 484, some answers and some hints of what’s to come.

Why is the state making these changes?

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson proposed AB 484 as a framework for the transition to the new Common Core State Standards that the state is working to implement and the battery of next-generation computer-based tests the standards call for.

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he would consider a one-year waiver in 2014 from math and English language arts testing so that a small percentage of schools nationwide could give a preliminary Common Core test instead, Torlakson ran with that idea. AB 484 requires all districts to give the preliminary, or field, Common Core tests next spring instead of the state tests – setting up a confrontation with the federal Department of Education, which didn’t intend a widespread suspension of standardized tests during the transition to the new standards.

The money saved from not administering state STAR tests would help pay for the more expensive Common Core tests and offset the costs of developing tests in other subjects. The computerized Common Core tests, touted as a step up from the pencil-and-paper tests students now take, will feature multi-step questions that require students to write more and show the thinking behind their answers.

What tests will be suspended, starting in the 2013-14 school year? 

A slew of them: California Standards Tests in English language arts and math in all grades (grade 11 would be voluntary for college placement purposes), including end-of-course tests in middle and high schools in Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry, general math and integrated math; all history tests (8th grade, U.S. history and world history); and end-of-course science tests in high school in biology, chemistry, physics and integrated science. Starting next year, standardized math or English language arts tests won’t be offered for 2nd graders, though districts that want to can continue to offer them, at state expense. CSTs in Spanish given initially to English learners will be suspended, too, though districts can offer the tests at their own expense.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson

What tests, then, will be given next spring?

Not many. Instead of giving the CSTs in English language arts and math for grades 3-8 and 11, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, the Legislature is requiring that all districts give every student the computer-based field, or practice, test for the new Common Core standards in either math or English language arts. The results won’t count for federal accountability purposes, and neither parents nor schools will get the scores back. Districts without the technology to give the field test won’t test students at all in language arts or math – one reason California is in trouble with Secretary of Education Duncan. It’s unknown how many districts have the capacity to offer computer-based tests, although between a third and 40 percent indicated in a state survey that they have little or only some confidence that they’ll be ready in time.

Students will continue to take state science tests in grades 5, 8 and 10, also required by federal law. The high school exit exam – required to obtain a diploma – also will be given, as well as alternative tests for disabled students – the California Modified Assessment and the Californian Alternative Performance Assessment – in some grades.

But that’s about it.

What will be given in spring 2015?

The official Common Core tests in English language arts and math in grades 3 through 8 and 11, a product of the states-led Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, will debut, and schools and parents will get the results of those tests. California is a lead member of the organization, and state officials insist the test is on schedule. (Doug McRae of Monterey, a retired standardized testing executive, has expressed doubt in EdSource Today comments.) Districts do have the option for the first three years of giving Smarter Balanced tests with paper and pencil. The computer-based tests will be adaptive, adjusting the degree of difficulty of the test to students’ ability, based on whether they answered previous questions correctly.

Science tests in grades 5, 8 and 10 will be given, as will the high school exit exam. Otherwise, no change.

Will it be possible to compare the old and new test scores?

AB 484 creates a clean break from the past. It prohibits studies making it possible to compare scores under the old system to the scores of the Common Core-aligned tests in English language arts and math, which will be officially introduced in 2015. And new tests in other subjects, such as history and high school end-of-course tests in science and math, could be years away, making comparisons with old tests by then irrelevant.

Opponents of AB 484, who include some civil rights groups, said discontinuing most standardized tests in 2014 is not just a break from, but also a brake on the public’s ability to hold school districts accountable for student progress. Parents rely on the test results to choose schools and measure progress in closing the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent students, they said.

“This plan has the potential to undermine public trust in our standardized assessment system at a critical transition point as parents and homeowners lose all information on the academic quality of their local public schools,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Education Trust-West, in a statement.

Next spring, students are supposed to take online practice tests aligned to the Common Core standards, but it’s unclear how many districts have the necessary technology. Credit: iStockphoto.com

In extensive comments to EdSource Today, Doug McRae also criticized the rupture in accountability. The state could have made a smooth, multi-year shift from one set of tests to another, making it possible to compare scores during the transition, as Massachusetts has done, but the Legislature deliberately chose not to, he said.

McRae and other critics are in the minority. Other policy makers, noting the confluence of new standards – Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards, which were adopted by the State Board in September  – and a new system of measuring district and school performance under the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, say it is important to take a fresh look at standardized tests and how they fit into an evolving accountability system.

“It’s time to sit back, study what we want and what a quality school should look like and hit the reset button,” said Chuck Weis, a former county superintendent in Santa Clara and Ventura counties and currently a member of the Advisory Committee for the Public Schools Accountability Act, which is making accountability recommendations to the State Board of Education. “Part of the way we run schools now is to pay attention to the achievement gap and student subgroups. That will not go away just because the API is on a hiatus.”

If the state is fundamentally changing what it asks teachers to teach, then it’s appropriate to have a break from testing during the transition to Common Core, said State Board of Education member Sue Burr. “But there is not a vacuum without test results,” she said, “since the state is moving to a new system of local accountability with broader measures under the new funding formula.” These include new measures of college and career readiness, graduation and dropout rates, equitable access to courses and school climate.

When will we have a better picture of the future of other state standardized tests?

Probably not for 2½ years. AB 484 gives the state Department of Education until March 2016 to present the Legislature a blueprint for state testing, although Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson could issue it sooner.

Does AB 484 permit the State Board of Education to adopt new state tests in some subjects before then?

Yes, and the State Board may at least start the test adoption process. Its priorities would appear to be Algebra I and new science tests aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

What about science testing?

The state is in an awkward position, since federal law requires testing in science in grades 5, 8 and 10, and the only tests now available measure performance in the California science standards, not the Next Generation Science Standards that districts will be switching to. So at least for several years, teachers face the prospect of testing students on standards that are very different from the new ones the state has adopted. If the State Board suspends the API in 2014 – a likely prospect – schools and parents will get the test results, but the science tests won’t count for accountability purposes under federal law.

The State Board has not yet adopted an implementation plan for the new science standards. For now, there is no committee writing curriculum frameworks for teaching the standards, nor is there money for teacher training and materials. So it may be just as well that there are no state tests at hand.

Only eight states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards so far. There’s talk that a consortium of states may create a new test, but there’s no public or foundation funding to launch the effort.

When they do appear, the next science assessments for K-12 will be computer-administered tests measuring students’ ability to interpret and analyze data and engage in scientific reasoning and arguments – significantly different from multiple-choice questions focusing on facts and information, says Jonathan Osborne, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an expert in science assessments.

What about Algebra I and high school end-of-course math tests?

Algebra I is a special case. Smarter Balanced is obligated to create tests for only grades 3 through 8 and 11 under its federal contract. Algebra I is a tweener. Common Core offers some algebra in its 8th grade curriculum but considers full-blown Algebra I a high school course. For a decade, California had pushed Algebra I for all 8th graders, but its new policy is for districts to encourage only those students who are truly ready for it to take Algebra I early. To measure the impact of that policy and create parity between the choices, it makes sense to have standardized tests for both 8th grade Common Core and Algebra I in place. Some parents probably will demand it.

State Board President Michael Kirst

State Board President Michael Kirst reports that, at several states’ request, Smarter Balanced will create an Algebra I test, although it may not debut by 2015. Another option would be to add algebra questions to the Common Core 8th grade test that could then serve as an Algebra I test, but that option definitely won’t be ready for 2015, Deputy State Superintendent Deb Sigman said. Other end-of-year math tests will be several years away.

What about new social studies and history tests?

They will likely be the caboose at the end of a train driven by the Common Core, perhaps five years away from reintroduction. Unlike English language arts and science, state history standards aren’t changing, so the state didn’t have to stop giving state CSTs in social studies. State officials justified doing so for two reasons: to save money, and to make a break from fact-based multiple-choice tests and shift to new computer-based tests that, like the Smarter Balanced tests, will require conceptual thinking as well as writing.

Will the state continue the policy of testing every student annually, from 3rd grade through high school, in subjects that had been used to calculate the API? 

We won’t know until the blueprint in 2016, but Torlakson could recommend some radical changes. He could conclude that high school end-of-course tests in biology or American history should be a district, not a state, responsibility. High school students currently don’t take end-of-course tests seriously, because they don’t count for grades or otherwise personally affect them. That could change if they became district-administered tests. As Chuck Weis noted, “We got into a box here where the state had to do all the assessments.”

Torlakson could also decide, with the introduction of more complex, lengthy and expensive tests in history and science, that students should take parts of, but not the entire test. This alternative, known as matrix sampling, could provide school and district results but not individual scores. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, uses matrix sampling, and AB 484 permits the state to introduce it.

State Board of Education member Sue Burr says she could envision a combination of state tests that feed into the API and locally administered tests used for student grades and for placing students into courses like Algebra I.

What about the California High School Exit Exam?

CAHSEE, which all students must pass in order to graduate from high school, appears to be an orphan. It wasn’t part of the STAR tests and so didn’t end with the other CSTs this year. And AB 484 doesn’t mention it. It’s part of the federal accountability system and so, for now, will continue to be given. Sigman said it might be modified so that the questions are consistent with the Common Core standards. Doug McRae suggests eliminating the need for a separate test by setting equivalent levels of achievement on Smarter Balanced math and English language arts tests.

The Department of Education intends to present a plan for CAHSEE soon to the State Board, Sigman said.

The future of many tests taken by high school students, including the exit exam, is unclear. Credit: Stock photo

What about the Early Assessment Program, the EAP?

The Early Assessment Program is a voluntary test taken by more than 80 percent of high school juniors to determine placement in college-ready courses in the California State University and many community colleges. It has been an augmentation of the 11th grade CST in math and English language arts. Starting in 2015, an as-yet-to-be-set score on the Smarter Balanced 11th grade tests in math and English language arts will determine college readiness for students in California and in other states taking the Smarter Balanced tests. Getting all states to agree on that threshold will be one of the challenges facing the consortium.

How will AB 484 affect English learners?

Spanish-speaking students in grades 2-11 who have been in school less than a year have taken the Standards-based Tests in Spanish, or STS, along with the California Standards Tests in English language arts and math. The state Department of Education is looking to 2016-17 to reintroduce the test in Spanish and perhaps other languages. Meanwhile, districts, at their own expense, can offer it for diagnostic purposes. The state is also revising the California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, which is used to determine who should be classified as an English learner and who may be reclassified as English proficient. The new test will be aligned to the new English Language Development Standards, which the State Board adopted last November to incorporate Common Core standards.

So what’s the future of the API?

That depends on who you ask and your time frame.

Using its authority under AB 484, the State Board will very likely suspend the API for 2014. The Smarter Balanced field tests for elementary and middle school grades will not produce individual and school results in math and language arts, leaving only two grades of science scores for an API. An API for high school would consist of only the results on the 10th grade science and the high school exit exam; not even realtors, who often tout API scores of neighborhood schools in selling homes, would find this useful.

The official Smarter Balanced tests on the Common Core standards in math and English language arts in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 will debut in 2015. But the State Board may not be willing or able to use those scores as a basis for judging school performance. It may not be possible initially to compare scores from districts giving computer-based, adaptive tests with those that choose to give Smarter Balanced tests by paper and pencil. And, given the potential for technical glitches in administering the tests and the struggles that teachers in most districts face preparing students in the Common Core standards over the next 18 months, the Board may vote to suspend API again. Doing so would signal to parents and the community that they should be patient and not make snap judgments on one year’s test results. The State Board could assert that the growth in scores, based on a target for improvement over at least a year, if not longer, is the proper way to gauge district and school achievement.

Given all of the uncertainties around testing, will there even be an API worth paying attention to?

Interesting question.

If API were a stock, I’d say bet short; it’s losing its value. With the standardized tests for many subjects in flux and the newly adopted Local Control Funding Formula demanding new measures of school performance, the API’s reign over schools appears over. This issue is explored further in an accompanying article that will be published on Thursday.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him @jfenster.

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