Most California students below standards on Common Core-aligned tests

September 9, 2015

Before the pandemic, students work in a Santa Ana Unified classroom in a way that would be unimaginable today.

(This article has been updated with comment throughout.)

First-year scores on the new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core standards showed that 34 percent of California’s students met achievement targets in math, and 44 percent met achievement targets in English language arts.

The results, however, also revealed wide disparities in achievement among student groups, with 65 percent of English language learners, 46 percent of African-Americans, 41 percent of low-income students and 39 percent of Hispanic students scoring in the lowest of four achievement levels. This compared with 23 percent of white students and 12 percent of Asian students who scored in the lowest level.

The California Department of Education on Wednesday released the much-anticipated scores for the Smarter Balanced tests, the main component of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress system. Testing results, by district, school and student subgroups, can be found on the CAASPP website. Last spring, 3.2 million students in grades 3 to 8 and grade 11 took the tests.

Smarter Balanced assessments, which are given online, replaced the Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, tests, which were last given in 2013. State education officials have warned the public not to compare Smarter Balanced scores with earlier tests, which were based on different academic standards, had different names and numbers of achievement levels, were taken with paper and pencil and were mainly multiple choice.

The Smarter Balanced tests are also adaptive, meaning they change depending on how a student answers a question. If a student answers a question correctly, the next one will be more difficult. If a student answers incorrectly, the next question will be easier.

The new tests required students to explain some of their answers and to complete a complex multi-step task for both math and English language arts. Both tests and the Common Core standards are more rigorous than previous tests and standards, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in announcing the results. “The results show our starting point as a state, a window into where California students are in meeting tougher academic standards that emphasize critical thinking, problem solving and analytical writing,” he said.

Test results from 2003, the baseline year for students taking the STAR tests under the 1997 California academic standards, don’t appear to support Torlakson’s argument that the current tests are harder, however. More students met or exceeded the English language arts test this year than were proficient or advanced in 2003: 44 percent vs. 35 percent then.

State officials said the new scores will establish a baseline against which future results will be measured and are predicting that scores will improve in coming years as students become familiar with online tests and teachers become better trained in teaching the new standards. Parents will receive their children’s individual scores in the mail likely sometime this month. The state’s contractor, Educational Testing Service, has begun sending out individual paper reports to districts, which have 20 days to mail them to parents.

Phil Daro, who ran the California Mathematics Project for the University of California and had a hand in developing the Common Core math standards, joined those who cautioned against reading much into the first year math results. Scores drop whenever there is new content and new kinds of tests, he said. “We have a ways to go in improving instruction, materials and teachers’ knowledge of math,” he said. “Common Core may have been in the news for a while, but not for a while in many classrooms,” he said.

What worries Daro most is the potential impact on students who may have been excelling in math before only to get a low score on the Smarter Balanced test. “I am most afraid that parents will misinterpret the results. We don’t want parents to think kids are bad in math or for kids to get discouraged. That poses the biggest single danger in the shift (to the Common Core).”

Scores fall within one of four achievement levels tied to the Common Core: “standard not met,” “standard nearly met,” “standard met,” and “standard exceeded.” (See what each level means.) With a key exception, California’s overall scores closely followed what Smarter Balanced test developers predicted last fall when they set the achievement level scores, based on a 1,000-point scale. In grade 11, 56 percent of students met or exceeded the standard in English language arts; Smarter Balanced had projected 41 percent. Since most community colleges and the California State University system are using the “standard met” level as an indicator that students are on track for college, the high score awards a tangible benefit.

The Smarter Balanced Tests replaced the state’s Early Assessment Program, a set of tests that measured college readiness based on the previous state standards. About 456,000 juniors statewide took the Smarter Balanced tests in the spring.

About 23 percent of juniors reached Level 4 – standard exceeded – in English, meaning they have already demonstrated “knowledge and skills needed for success in college and careers.” These students are now considered ready for college-level coursework and are exempt from having to take English or math placement tests after they gain admission to a California State University campus, or enroll in a state community college.

An additional 33 percent of juniors reached Level 3 – standard met. These students are classified as conditionally ready and will be encouraged to take an approved English or mathematics class in the senior year and earn a grade of C or higher to become exempt from placement tests.

Math was a different story, however, with only 29 percent of 11th graders meeting or exceeding the standard, the benchmark for college readiness, 45 percent not meeting the standard and 25 percent nearly meeting the standard.

These tests are “an important part of our collective success moving forward,” CSU Chancellor Timothy White said in a written statement. “The test results signal the need for teachers, parents and local communities to work together to support students on their path to college and workforce success.”

More analysis is needed to determine if the disparity between performance on 11th grade math and English language arts tests reflected the quality of instruction, a comparably easier English language arts test or challenges in measuring high school math knowledge with one test for all students.

Smarter Balanced critics such as Doug McRae, a retired standardized testing expert, have questioned the methodology – and the lack of transparency in detailing it – that Smarter Balanced used in setting the scores determining the various achievement levels. Standard Balanced partly used results from a student field test of potential test questions last year to set the achievement levels, which McRae called unreliable and improper. The other consortium of states that developed Common Core-aligned tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, avoided this method.

Wide disparities

Nearly a quarter of the state’s students are English language learners. Although glossaries – and for Spanish speakers, translations – were available, Smarter Balanced demanded more writing and verbal reasoning skills than past standardized tests.

“If this is a baseline year, then a lot needs to happen,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a nonprofit that advocates for English learners and low-income students. She called for a master plan for English learners to identify programs and resources that are effective – a recommendation that Torlakson supports. And she said the state also should do a study to see whether districts actually used the language accommodations for English learners to which they were entitled.

The combined scores for all grades tested reflected the challenges English learners faced in English language arts:

The distribution was nearly the same in math.

For the 59 percent of students who are from low-income families, the results in math for all grades tested were:

In English language arts, the scores were similar:

The scores were nearly opposite for Asian students on both tests. The results in English language arts for all grades tested were:

The scores in math were:

All subgroup results and scores by school and district can be found on the CAASPP website and in EdSource’s Smarter Balanced database. 

“The achievement gap is alarming,” said Debra Brown, associate director of education policy at Children Now, an Oakland-based education policy organization. “The silver lining is that Smarter Balanced provides a better measurement of what students know and will provide teachers with a deeper level of information to help them figure out how to change their teaching.

Girls scored significantly higher than boys in English language arts, with 59 percent of all girls tested scoring at or above standard, compared with 48 percent for boys. The gap started in 3rd grade and remained wide though grade 11. Differences in math scores between boys and girls were insignificant.

In some states, those opposed to standardized testing – or the Common Core in particular – encouraged parents to opt out of the Smarter Balanced tests. In Washington state, 11 percent of parents refused to permit their children to take the tests, including half of 11th graders. But in California, less than 1 percent of parents opted out.

The state Department of Education said it does not plan to rank schools by their Smarter Balanced scores or to create similar schools rankings, as it did with the Academic Performance Index. Two years ago, the state suspended the API, which assigned schools and districts a number between 200 and 1,000 based on how they performed on standardized tests.

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