The State Board of Education, as expected, voted Thursday to move ahead in the spring with the new Smarter Balanced tests on the Common Core State Standards while leaving open, for now, the decision on what to do with the test results.
At the meeting, the organizations representing the state’s school administrators and school boards said they support reporting test scores to parents and schools. But they would like to postpone using results to judge schools and districts. They argued that many districts aren’t far enough along in adopting the new standards to credibly appraise schools’ performance. The Association of California School Administrators said in a statement that each district “is at a different level of implementation.”
The board didn’t discuss or act on the request, although board President Michael Kirst said afterward that the subject may come up at the board’s next meeting, in January or March. Last spring the state suspended nearly all state standardized tests, prompting the federal Department of Education to threaten to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in education dollars for low-income students. Although the department eventually backed off, a further delay could provoke another fight between state and federal officials.
The state Department of Education is recommending that the results of the 2014-15 Smarter Balanced tests in math and reading provide the base scores for schools and districts. They would then be judged on the growth in scores the following year to recalculate the state’s Academic Performance Index, or API. The school boards and administrators want to wait a year and use 2015-16 as the base year.
The proposed delay reflects the uncertainty of knowing how far along the state’s 1,000 districts are in implementing the more rigorous Common Core standards and in preparing to administer end-of-year tests, which for the first time will be administered on computers. Nearly all schools had a dry run last spring when they gave students a Smarter Balanced practice test either in math or reading.
Based on the experience, the state Department of Education reports that nearly all districts have the capacity to administer next spring’s tests. On Thursday, Cindy Kazanis, director of the education management division of the Department of Education, predicted that only about 50 schools out of 11,000 in the state would be giving the test using paper and pencil instead of computers.
But Doug McRae, a retired testing specialist who has criticized Smarter Balanced’s timeline for the tests, said the state has focused on technological readiness and not instructional readiness. Testing students before they have been instructed in the content of Common Core will produce invalid results, he said.
The school administrators association noted that some districts had used one-time Common Core money from the state to upgrade technology or buy instructional materials and not for teacher training. Sherry Skelly Griffith, director of governmental relations for the administrators association, noted that teachers aren’t yet able to use some of the essential tools that the state has purchased from Smarter Balanced. Interim assessments – practice tests that let schools know if students are on track for the end-of-year tests – won’t be available until January.
The board also heard complaints about Smarter Balanced’s Digital Library, a 2,500-item resource that helps guide teachers’ instruction. The Digital Library went online Oct. 1, and 109,000 California teachers have signed up to use it, according to the state. However, technical glitches forced it to shut down a few days last week, and some districts have not given their teachers access to use it. “It strikes me as odd that if we pay for this to be available to teachers, and it is not, then there is a problem,” said board member Sue Burr.
Holly Edds, an assistant superintendent of the Orcutt Union School District, said that waiting a year would give districts a better understanding of the tests and would give teachers a full year to work with interim tests and Smarter Balanced’s digital resources. The state board has the authority under state law to delay calculating the API for another year, and should use it, she said.
Representatives of two organizations advocating for low-income, minority children agreed with the school boards’ and administrators’ position, with caveats.
Amber Banks, an associate with Education Trust-West, said if there were a delay, the state should consider short-term ways to identify low-performing schools needing interventions.
Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs for Public Advocates, said that districts should use the results of student scores from next spring’s tests to direct funding and set goals under their Local Control and Accountability Plans for academic improvement. And she called on the state to do a thorough Common Core evaluation of districts’ readiness to meet the needs of English learners and low-income students.
But Deborah Brown, associate director of education policy at Children Now, urged caution in delaying the establishment of API scores. She said the state must explore carefully potential conflicts with federal accountability requirements.
And Bill Lucia, CEO of the nonprofit organization EdVoice, recommended moving forward with the base scores as planned. The Department of Education has made a reasonable recommendation, and the scores are an essential piece of the state’s new accountability system, he said.