How to report test scores to parents debated

January 14, 2015
CAASPP sbac smarter balanced

Students in California preparing for the Smarter Balanced tests.

With California students set to begin taking new Smarter Balanced tests in the Common Core State Standards this spring, state education officials are worried about how parents will view the results – especially if, as experts predict, their kids’ initial scores will be low.

“I’m not sure we have (the message) right yet,” Chief Deputy State Superintendent Richard Zeiger told members of the State Board of Education on Wednesday. The Department of Education is working on drafts of explanations of the scores that it has not yet published.

“Let’s be frank: All scores will be shifted to the left,” he said, meaning lower on the point scale, with fewer students deemed to be proficient than under the old state standards and more students scoring at basic or below basic levels. “We have to educate parents about that. It’s not that your kid got dumber; there has been a shift in systems.”

Downplaying the significance of the first year’s scores, State Board President Michael Kirst has said that it will take five more years for full implementation of the new standards, with fully trained teachers using fully developed curricula and textbooks. He and others are concerned that low scores will fuel the public’s skepticism of Common Core and teachers’ anxiety that they’ll be prematurely judged by test scores.

Last year, students from California and 16 other states belonging to the Smarter Balanced consortium took a Smarter Balanced “field,” or practice, test. Based on the results and professional educators’ judgments, Smarter Balanced created four performance levels for the test, determined by threshold points or “cut scores” at each level. Level 4 designates advanced work and Levels 1 and 2 demonstrate partial or minimal knowledge of the standards. Level 3 is roughly equivalent to proficiency, although Kirst and other officials insist on not using that term. Smarter Balanced is predicting that between 33 percent and 44 percent of students in California and elsewhere will reach the threshold for Level 3 this spring, when the formal tests are introduced.

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 percent of students scored proficient and above in English language arts. The scores ranged from 46 percent proficient in 3rd-grade reading to 72 percent proficient in 4th-grade math.

Kirst and advocates of Common Core argue that Common Core standards, which stress problem-solving, communication skills and conceptual understanding of math, are different, if not more rigorous, than the previous state academic standards, and new tests will be harder, too. To emphasize this point, the Legislature prohibited comparing the old and new test scores to update the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s chief accountability measure.

From March to June, 3.2 million California students in grades 3 to 8 and grade 11 will take the Smarter Balanced end-of-year tests in math and English language arts. Nearly all will take it online, and the state Department of Education is promising that schools will receive the scores electronically between two and four weeks later. Parents will receive paper copies of the report about a month after that. It will take longer to report the scores of the 2,000 students, mainly from rural schools without adequate technology, who will take the Smarter Balanced test on paper.

Students will receive a score ranging from 2,000 to 3,000, a point system intentionally chosen to differentiate it from what other states have used. The state can choose how to present the results to parents. It could focus on a student’s raw number and emphasize the student’s growth on the scale from grade to grade – something that wasn’t possible with the old state tests. Or it could de-emphasize the raw score while focusing on which of the four performance levels the student achieved. Board members expressed different views.

“Scale scores provide a better breakdown,” Kirst said. “We need to get away from the over-focus on (performance) levels.” There’s “nothing magical” about the threshold or cut scores by level; they are imprecise, he said.

But board member Trish Williams said that performance levels provide an easily understandable indicator. Parents need to know how their children performed relative to others, she said.

Still to be determined is whether first-year Smarter Balanced scores will be used to judge schools’ and districts’ performance. The state board suspended the API for 2014-15, and in March, it will decide whether to suspend it again in 2015-16. That’s what the Association of California School Administrators, representing superintendents and principals, and Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, are seeking. They have said that there has not been enough time for teachers and districts to make the transition to the new standards for accountability purposes.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti seconded that in a letter sent to the state board this week. “Any use of the spring 2015 (Smarter Balanced) results will give the state an inaccurate picture of student and school performance,” he said.

Doug McRae, a retired standardized testing publisher from Monterey who has consistently questioned Smarter Balanced’s methodology and timetable in testimony before the state board, on Wednesday called for delaying all reporting of this spring’s Smarter Balanced scores until the state has done thorough studies to determine if the performance levels are valid and reliable, as required by state law.

The board has referred the issue of delaying the API scores to two advisory committees, which are to report back in March.

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