Under half of students projected to test well

November 17, 2014

The score at or above Level 3 indicates the percentage of students who would perform at grade level or, for 11th-graders, would be on track to handle college level work without need for remediation, in math.

Between a third and 44 percent of students in California and 16 other states taking the same test next spring on the Common Core standards are expected to score at grade level in math and reading, according to projections released Monday by the creator of the states’ tests.

For 11th-graders, only 33 percent of students would be on track for college work in math while 41 percent would have reading and English language arts skills necessary for college work by the time they graduated from high school, according to information by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, an organization of states, including California, that created the tests.

The proficiency projections were derived from the “cut scores” or points establishing four levels of performance on the tests. About 500 teachers, administrators and college faculty, along with some parents and community leaders from the Smarter Balanced states, recommended the performance levels after week-long group discussions, by grade, of how students would demonstrate full or partial knowledge of the Common Core standards. The performance of 4.2 million students on the Smarter Balanced field test last spring was then used to estimate how well students will do on the actual tests in 2015.

Representatives from the 22 member Smarter Balanced states endorsed the recommended cut scores establishing four achievement levels at a meeting in San Diego on Friday night.

The Smarter Balanced tests will be given to students in grades three through eight and grade 11. The projections of proficiency vary by grade and subject, with 39 percent of third-graders predicted to be at or above grade level in math, compared with 32 percent of eighth-graders. In English language arts, 38 percent of third-graders would be at grade level, compared with 44 percent of fifth-graders.

Source: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

The score at or above Level 3 indicates the percentage of students who would perform at grade level or, for 11th-graders, would be on track to handle college level work without need for remediation, based on the Smarter Balanced test in English language arts.

Scoring at Level 3 is equivalent to proficiency or grade level work; Level 4 designates advanced work. Levels 1 and 2 demonstrate partial or minimal knowledge of the standards.

Consortium and California officials have warned that the initial scores on the Smarter Balanced tests would be lower than on tests based on California’s and most states’ standards, because the Common Core standards are harder, and the tests, designed to measure critical thinking, problem solving and verbal reasoning, will be harder. They reiterated that on Monday while cautioning against comparing results on the California Standards Tests with those of Smarter Balanced.

“Because the new content standards set higher expectations for students and the new tests are designed to assess student performance against those higher standards, the bar has been raised,” Joe Willhoft, executive director of Smarter Balanced, said in a statement. “However, over time the performance of students will improve.”

“Any time you bring in a new exam, especially one that is connected to a fundamental shift in standards, it takes time” to reflect achievement, Richard Zeiger, chief deputy state superintendent of public instruction, said in an interview. “Teachers need time to teach, and students will get better as they progress through grade levels, starting with the youngest students.”

In 2013, the last time that the California standardized tests were given, 51 percent of students overall posted a score of proficient and above in math and 56.4 percent of students scored proficient and above in English language arts. The scores ranged from 46 percent proficient in third grade reading to 72 percent proficient in fourth grade math. However, a decade earlier, scores averaged 35 percent proficient or above in math and reading – about the predicted starting point for Smarter Balanced.

Results on next spring’s Smarter Balanced tests are expected to become the base scores for reviving the state’s Academic Performance Index, or API, which was suspended last year. Actual API scores would be set the following year, in 2015-16, based on the growth from the base scores.

The Smarter Balanced tests will be computer-based, with the state predicting that less than 1 percent of schools will have to give the tests using paper and pencil for lack of technology. However, reflecting wariness over being judged too soon on tests they’ve never taken and standards they’re just beginning to implement, the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association asked the State Board of Education to put off setting API base scores using the new tests for another year. The board didn’t respond at its meeting last week.

The federal government required that Smarter Balanced and another consortium of states, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, to set four levels of cut scores. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools and districts that didn’t attain near-100 percent levels of student proficiency on standardized tests by this year faced sanctions. Most states have gotten waivers from the penalties, but not California.

Downplaying a single test

Critics of Common Core and the new assessments have argued that the new, harder standards are again setting up schools for failure. Teachers in states that require using standardized test scores for teacher evaluations also voiced opposition. California is not one of those states.

California officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, the state board, most legislators and chancellors of the state’s public universities have praised the new assessments and standards as vital for preparing students for college work and for a more technically demanding workplace. However, they’ve also laid out a vision for a new school accountability system that will give less weight to standardized tests in judging a student’s or a school’s achievement. Student scores are one of eight priorities that districts must measure and address in the Local Control and Accountability Plans they are required to create. Under a new state law, the state board will be required to add additional factors, like graduation rates, into the API, reducing the weight of reading and math scores.

In the press release announcing the cut scores, Smarter Balanced also released a memo warning against an oversimplified use of a single cut score.

“Achievement Levels should not be interpreted as infallible predictors of students’ futures. They must continuously be validated, and should be used only in the context of the multiple sources of information that we have about students and schools,” it said.

The memo offered an alternative way of presenting the results: a vertical scale of scores, starting at 2,000 and ending at about 3,000, that would track students’ performance from third through 11th grades. The cut scores for each grade would be individual points on the scale. But the full scale would show students’ progress over time and put the cut scores in context.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress also uses a vertical scale when comparing states’ scores. Zeiger indicated that California’s new accountability system probably would incorporate that approach.

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