Credit: Louis Freedberg/EdSource Today

Students work in a Santa Ana Unified classroom.

As educators across the state examine the results of the Smarter Balanced assessments that millions of students took last spring, officials in several school districts that EdSource is tracking say they want to avoid overreacting to the scores and that they want to take more time to review the results before significantly adjusting what they are already doing.

“We’re not going to stop all activity and shut everything down and recalibrate right now, given that we’re coming into our third week of school,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson after the state released the scores Sept. 9. “I feel good about some bright spots. But, candidly, I don’t know what they mean and why. It will take a few years to iron out.”

District leaders said the Smarter Balanced scores set an important baseline to assess future academic growth. But several said they are also focusing on improving performance in other areas and are still waiting for more detailed results that could give them a better idea of specific content areas in which students excelled or fell short. In general, EdSource interviews suggest the test results have yet to inform instruction in a systematic way.

The Smarter Balanced test scores are among more than two dozen items the state will use to assess school success, including school climate, attendance and graduation rates, and reducing suspensions and expulsions.

“It’s one of 30 different measures we’re using, from attendance to suspension rates,” said Elk Grove Unified superintendent Chris Hoffman. “There’s a whole range of measures that we think are important in determining kids being successful.”

The responses reflect the state’s new school local control and accountability reforms promoted by Gov. Brown and enacted by the state Legislature, which downplay the importance of test results alone and place a priority on a far more comprehensive set of measures of school and student performance.

Fresno Unified and Elk Grove Unified are among the half-dozen districts EdSource is following as they implement the Common Core standards. The others are Garden Grove UnifiedSanta Ana UnifiedVisalia Unified and San Jose Unified. Also in the sample are the Aspire Public Schools, with 35 charter schools around the state.

Rather than scores being used principally to rank and rebuke schools, teachers and districts – which was a feature of the No Child Left Behind era of reforms – officials are hoping that the new scores will actually help improve student performance.

Jason Willis, San Jose Unified’s assistant superintendent for community engagement and accountability, said that his district wants to “use the recent results as an additional tool to help our students. The opportunity Smarter Balanced creates is just one more data point in a set of data for us to be able to learn and understand as we work toward the outcomes that we desire, for all of our students to be successful.”

A frustration expressed by officials in some districts is that they received scores later than expected, and what they received was much less specific than they had hoped for. That has made it more difficult to adapt their teaching strategies or other interventions for individual students based on their test performance.

“One of the challenges has been wanting to get more detailed information on the results, which we don’t have now,” said Garden Grove Unified Superintendent Gabriela Mafi. “I guess it’s useful as part of the state’s accountability system, but teachers are used to much more discrete content cluster level data, where they can look particularly at vocabulary, word analysis, and they can also see the scope of the things that were tested.”

Whereas districts received particulars about what was tested under the previous California Standards Tests, she said they have only been given very general information about what was assessed on the new California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, known as CAASPP.

“So, within ‘reading,’ we have no breakdown of which parts of reading are better or worse,” Mafi said, adding that CAASPP results are “not specific enough to guide instruction in any way.”

Another challenge, Mafi said, was that students could choose multiple correct answers on some Smarter Balanced test items. “We don’t know how well kids did on those types of questions because we don’t have that fine-grain data,” Mafi said.

A further obstacle is that teachers do not have direct access to their student’s results, as the state is still developing an Online Reporting System that will allow that.

Before adapting what they are currently doing, some officials also want to look at how or why students in similar districts did better on the tests, and possibly consider adopting practices implemented elsewhere.

“There is a lot of sharing that’s happening between school districts of similar size and student demographics,” Willis said. “We find value in sharing effective practices and learning.”

That will involve having frank discussions about where districts are succeeding, and where they are not, he said. “When we get into conversations with other districts, we really want to create an opportunity to be vulnerable,” Willis said. “As professionals, we want to create an environment where people can really be honest and open about what’s happening. That’s the first great step to getting better as an institution.”

One reason that district officials are finding it challenging to interpret the results is that for the first time this year, students who answered a question correctly were given more difficult computer-generated questions to answer. If they answered incorrectly they were given easier ones.

The purpose of these “computer adaptive” tests was to drill down to find out more precisely what individual students knew or didn’t know.

“Part of what we really have to figure out is how detailed the information is that we’ll receive compared to what we used to get with the California Standards Test (administered to students until 2013) to dig down to specific items and details within the tests,” Elk Grove’s Hoffman said.

He said the scores provide useful information – especially to see how his district compares with others – but, “it’s not something we’re using on a day-to-day basis in intervening with kids.”

Among the six districts being tracked by EdSource, student performance on the tests varied considerably from district to district (see tables below).

San Jose Unified had the highest percentage of students – some 51 percent of test takers – who met or exceeded standards on the English language arts portion of the test. About 39 percent met or exceeded standards on math.

By contrast, Santa Ana had the lowest percentage of students – 25 percent – who met or exceeded the standards on the English language arts portion of the test. About 21 percent met or exceeded the standards on math.

But it is worth noting that San Jose also had one of the lowest percentages of English learners (17 percent) and the lowest percentage of students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals (45 percent) among the 3rd through 8th graders and 11th graders who took the tests. Santa Ana, by contrast, had the highest percentage of English learners (4o percent) and the highest percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meal programs (93 percent).

In all districts, there were substantial gaps between the scores of Asian-American and white students on the one hand and black and Latino students on the other. But officials said the achievement gaps underscored by the results don’t come as a surprise to them, and that they all have had plans in place to address them.

One reason for the gap is that many students do not have access to computers or the Internet in their homes, putting them at a disadvantage when it came time for testing, said Santa Ana’s Lucinda Pueblos, an assistant superintendent for school performance and culture.

Santa Ana plans to continue adding technology to reach a wider range of students and is using Local Control Funding Formula dollars to add more student intervention programs, teacher training and other services to help more students succeed, Pueblos said.

Some districts have responded to the test scores with modest measures to target resources at schools that need the most help. San Jose, for example, is trying to concentrate instructional coaches – teachers who have expertise in an academic discipline or working with special populations like English learners – in schools where students received the lowest scores.

“We have through the Local Control Funding Formula more resources on those campuses with higher percentages of low-income students, English learners and foster youth,” Willis said. The goal is to ensure “we’re providing quality opportunities for every one of our students to be college and career ready.”

Similarly, Visalia Unified will evaluate its Local Control and Accountability Plan goals and reallocate resources next year based partially on the test results, said Superintendent Craig Wheaton.

“This gives us information that we can mine and find the nuggets and change our practices or reinforce our practices,” he said.  Test results show that in particular, English learners need the most help, and math is a subject where more students are lagging. “I think it will help inform and direct our goals as we move forward,” he said.

Aspire’s charter school network is looking at campuses where students performed at the highest proficiency levels on the Smarter Balanced tests in order to possibly replicate successful programs at its other schools.

“We plan to do regression analysis to identify which schools outperformed what would be predicted – based on numbers of students on free and reduced lunches and English learners – to look at those schools beating the odds,” said Elise Darwish, Aspire’s chief academic officer. “We’re doing a lot of autopsy work.”

Even as they look closely at this year’s results, Fresno’s Hanson said his district will avoid “teaching to the test” when students prepare to take the Smarter Balanced assessments again. “You’re not going to see bumper stickers in Fresno that say, ‘Give it your best for Smarter Balanced next spring,’” he said. “It’s important, but it’s not a driving factor.”

Instead, Hanson said his district is spending a lot of its resources on efforts such as improving school climate and field trips to a science camp, museums, national parks and other world-class destinations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium to provide students with the same kinds of life experiences those in more affluent areas receive. The district has also purchased musical instruments, is offering a wider variety of clubs and programs such as “History Day,” has adopted new math materials, is providing curriculum training to teachers and administrators, and has lengthened the school day at several campuses.

Some districts are looking to the state to provide further guidance on how to use the test results to inform instruction. To that end, they plan to send teachers and other educators to workshops or “institutes” that the state is sponsoring in October.

“We’re going to be participating in the institutes,” Mafi said. “We’ve been proceeding with caution in interpreting the scores, only because comparisons to the previous system are so challenging. We just don’t know enough yet.”


Staff writers Fermin Leal and Sarah Tully contributed to this report.


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  1. Roxana Marachi 10 months ago10 months ago

    It’s a good move that District Officials are avoiding overreacting because the new assessments fail to meet the most basic of standards for testing and accountability. To rely on the new “scores” as a basis for assessment decisions would be to make decisions anchored in false data. Please read the Open Letter to the State Board of Education as well as the 10 Critical Questions about Computerized Assessments and SmarterBalanced Test Scores: http://eduresearcher.com/2015/07/06/critical-questions-computerized-testing-sbac/.

  2. jo gold 10 months ago10 months ago

    This is so typical of education. They tout Smarter Balanced as the next coming of christ. Then when the results are predictably not what they expect they downplay the meaning of the results. As a long time K-12 teacher I can say that I have never seen a more disorganized and pathetic industry as public education. Education is a slave to commerce and fashion, witness the One to One computer … Read More

    This is so typical of education. They tout Smarter Balanced as the next coming of christ. Then when the results are predictably not what they expect they downplay the meaning of the results. As a long time K-12 teacher I can say that I have never seen a more disorganized and pathetic industry as public education. Education is a slave to commerce and fashion, witness the One to One computer programs. Technology for all and equity be damned. If the kids do not master the curriculum, blame the teachers, adopt new tests and standards and hope for the best. No wonder the U.S. is so far behind the rest of the world – what a pathetic joke.

    Replies

    • Gary Ravani 10 months ago10 months ago

      Jo: Yet another "pathetic" situation is the number of people who believe the myth that "the US is so far behind the rest of the world." The only thing the US is behind the rest of the...developed..world, in education related issues, is in child poverty rates. The US ranks 32 out of 33 industrialized nations as rated by the OECD in having a child poverty rate that exceeds 20%. In schools in the US with 10% … Read More

      Jo:

      Yet another “pathetic” situation is the number of people who believe the myth that “the US is so far behind the rest of the world.” The only thing the US is behind the rest of the…developed..world, in education related issues, is in child poverty rates. The US ranks 32 out of 33 industrialized nations as rated by the OECD in having a child poverty rate that exceeds 20%. In schools in the US with 10% or less of kids qualified for “free and reduced lunch” (aka, the estimation of kids living in poverty) the US ranks # 1 in the world on measured achievement on international tests. In schools with 25% or less F&RL the US ranks right with the other top scoring nations in the world.

      The obvious answer to the problem of aggregate scores showing the US is in the middle of the pack on international test score (where it really is and not actually trailing the rest of the industrialized world) is insuring that no public school in the US exceeds 10% F&RL.The conservative response to this situation is to make fewer kids eligible to eat what is perhaps their best meal of the day in the F&RL program. The remedy, since more than half of US students in public schools are now considered to live in poverty conditions that would mean a social service, jobs, fair housing, and living wage investment that would parallel the Marshall Plan in 2015 dollars. Of course that’s a tremendous challenge with the current majorities in Congress because so many poor in the US are Brown and Black kids, whereas the Marshall Plan dragged a White European population out of post-war depression. The current Congressional majority party has shown that it doesn’t even want Brown and Black people in the country to be able to vote let alone invest in bringing the children of that population out of cruel poverty.

      We have a lot of work ahead of us in public education, but let’s not get distracted by mythologies about how well or poorly US schools compare to the rest of the world.

      One of the real obstacles to any genuine reform and establishing a seamless social support system for children and their parents as other thriving economies have done in Northern Europe is, that to this point, high child poverty rates and an overburdened, under resourced, public schools system has had little impact on worker productivity in the US. Productivity has remained among the highest in the world even as the middle-class has shrunk and wages have stagnated. Industry, the US Chamber of Commerce, “foundations aligned with the very wealthy, as well as conservative think-tanks (sic) that support them have, via suppression of unions, been able to exploit the workforce and have generated enormous wealth that has gone to corporate profits and a small number of wealthy individuals; hence, the shrinking middle class and wage stagnation. Just lately have economists begun to suggest that the wage and class suppression orchestrated by corporations and the extremely wealthy are contributing factors to slow US economic growth. A suppression of corporate greed and a political system enslaved by the whims of the wealthy may yet see a change in the economic structure of the US and a consequent attention being paid to the plight of the poor and the schools.

      We shall see.

  3. Gary Ravani 10 months ago10 months ago

    From the above article: "But it is worth noting that San Jose also had one of the lowest percentages of English learners (17 percent) and the lowest percentage of students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals (45 percent) among the 3rd through 8th graders and 11th graders who took the tests. Santa Ana, by contrast, had the highest percentage of English learners (4o percent) and the highest percentage of students who qualified for free or … Read More

    From the above article:

    “But it is worth noting that San Jose also had one of the lowest percentages of English learners (17 percent) and the lowest percentage of students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals (45 percent) among the 3rd through 8th graders and 11th graders who took the tests. Santa Ana, by contrast, had the highest percentage of English learners (4o percent) and the highest percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meal programs (93 percent).”

    Well, yes, we should take note of that since it is consistent with every other piece of legitimate research done on testing over the course of decades. If the results did not show that it would mean some serious recalibration of SBAC was in order.

    To this point in time we do not know in relatively minor re-calibrations of SBAC are in order. It is too soon to say too much about SBAC or CCSS implementation.

    The above having been said, it did not stop Ed Trust from issuing a statement (just got the email) about just how significant the SBAC results really were. Ed Trust policy recommendation: We should all set our hair on fire and obsess on “equity” paying no attention to CA’s school funding which makes real equity an impossibility. LCFF, even more than RLI, insures that CA’s students are underfunded in their K-12 education in a very equitable fashion compared to their peers nationally This would exclude students from the most affluent areas of CA who use parcel taxes and foundations to insure their students get the best education available, and that is a very good education indeed.

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