This story was updated June 2, 2015 to include the final version of the form that parents will receive.
The vocabulary has changed, and so have the numbers and the format. The two-page report that parents will receive later this year describing their children’s results on the new Smarter Balanced tests on the Common Core State Standards will be very different from what they’ve seen in the past.
That’s intentional. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the State Board of Education are using multiple cues to send a uniform message: Parents shouldn’t compare the new results with scores on past state standardized tests; this year’s English language arts and math tests are, they say, more difficult, and are based on a different set of academic standards. They mark a break from the past.
At its meeting on Wednesday, the State Board of Education approved, with suggestions for changes, a draft of the report, which districts will send home within two months after students take the new test. Although a few districts began giving the Smarter Balanced tests in grades 3 to 8 and grade 11 this week, many will begin after spring break in April and finish in late May or June.
The new report doesn’t use the terms that designated five levels of achievement on the California Standards Tests: far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Instead, Smarter Balanced uses four achievement levels, which state officials have designated: standard not met, standard nearly met, standard met, standard exceeded. The levels will designate the degree of “progress toward mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for success in future coursework.” For 11th-graders, they measure the degree to which students are on track to be ready for college or a career after graduating from high school.
For math and English language arts, students will receive a separate composite score between 2,000 and 3,000 points that falls within one of the achievement levels. One complaint about the old state system, known as STAR, was that it emphasized a student’s level of achievement, such as basic. With Smarter Balanced, state officials want to emphasize the growth in a student’s score from year to year. It includes a margin of error line, which shows how a score might have changed if the student had taken the test again.
The sample hypothetical report gives the score for “Juan,” a 5th-grader whose 2,508 points for English language arts falls within the lower range of the third level, standard met, but the margin of error also places him in the upper range of the standard nearly met level (see illustration below). His math score of 2,279 is toward the bottom of the lowest level.
“The message we are sending is complex and multi-faceted,” said state board President Michael Kirst. “This is a new test that shouldn’t be compared with the old test. It’s a more difficult test with new standards, and the scoring levels are not as precise as they might appear.”
Although the reports will likely go to parents in late summer, teachers should receive electronically the scores of students in their classes within a month of the test. That’s much quicker than in the past and should enable teachers to determine where to focus attention in the final weeks of school and which students need help in specific content areas.
The report will also feature a graphic that will show how a student’s score compares with the average score on the “practice” Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts that students in California and other consortium states took last year. Doug McRae, a retired educational measurement specialist and critic of the state board’s overall handling of Smarter Balanced, chastised the use of this comparison in comments to the board. The purpose of the field test was to help weed out questions for this year’s test, and students arbitrarily were given questions with various degrees of difficulty; no student was given the full range of problems, making any comparison unreliable, he said.
During their discussion of the report on Wednesday, state board members were divided on whether the results from the field test should be included. Education groups had conflicting opinions as well, with the California School Boards Association supporting including the information and the California Teachers Association opposed, unless the report includes a clarification on the reliability of field test results.
Board member Bruce Holaday said that it is important for parents to have some frame of reference “like putting a ruler next to the rock on the moon,” and the field test results do that.
But board member Aida Molina asked if the report might be misinforming parents by presenting an invalid comparison. Particularly if a student’s score is lower than the average on the field test, the message to parents would be, “Here we are a year later and no better off.”
Tony Alpert, executive director of Smarter Balanced, acknowledged that parents could reach that conclusion, and suggested that training for teachers and an interpretive guide could “mitigate” that possibility.
After further discussion, the board approved the report while suggesting that the state Department of Education, which wrote the draft, elaborate on who took the field test and how parents should view the information.
Keric Ashley, interim deputy state superintendent, downplayed the importance of the field test comparison in an interview, saying that the purpose was to provide parents “a larger context” of where their students’ scores fell relative to other students.
(Update: After further reflection, the state Department of Education eliminated the comparison with last year’s field test and will not include a comparison with this year’s results of other students from California. State, school and district scores will be released separately this fall. During a webinar on the parent reports in May, Ashley said that the parents form will be reviewed and possibly revised again next year. Here is the final version that parents will receive.)
The second page of the report elaborates on the purpose of the Smarter Balanced test, which, it says, includes a “wider variety of questions than traditional multiple-choice tests and include tasks and test items that require students to explain how they solve problems.” It breaks down the overall score into components that the Common Core standards stress. These include reading, writing, listening and research/inquiry skills in the 5th-grade English language arts test and problem solving, concepts and procedures and communicating reasoning for 5th-grade math. In the hypothetical report, Juan’s results put him “above standard” in reading but “below standard” in research/inquiry.
By comparison, a similar math report to parents for the California Standards Tests (see pages 40-41) included a breakdown for decimals, fractions and negative numbers, operations and factoring, and algebra and functions.
The Smarter Balanced components measure “overarching, higher order skills that students need to succeed as they progress though the grades” and can’t be compared with the more specific skills that were on the previous tests, Kirst said.
A two-page sheet prevents the ability to explain Smarter Balanced and the new standards in depth, Ashley said, adding that the state will post a comprehensive guide to the tests on the state Department of Education website. Districts may also supplement the material that they send home with the parent reports, he said. Test results should be just one piece of a larger discussion about how a child is performing, he said.
The test results for schools and district results won’t be available until early fall, similar to the past schedule. This year’s Smarter Balanced scores will be the baseline for measuring school improvement, but the state board hasn’t determined when and how schools and districts will be held accountable for the results.
The Association of California School Administrators and other education groups have called on the state board to use this year’s results essentially as a practice test, without any accountability purpose, because teachers are still being trained in Common Core, and many students have not had any experience with online tests.
But Kirst said that the baseline scores “will simply say where we are now” – nothing more. The board hasn’t decided how future results, showing growth toward yet-to-be-determined statewide target scores, will be used, he said. Meanwhile, the state board is committed to being transparent with results, he said.