New standards and tests are worth the effort

March 1, 2015
Gina Dalma

Gina Dalma

This spring, all California’s students in grades 3-8 and in grade 11 will take brand new tests. These end-of-year standardized tests – known in the field as Smarter Balanced assessments – will be administered as part of a new, more comprehensive state accountability system to measure student progress toward college and career readiness.

This system is based on the new Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics adopted by California along with 42 other states.

Here is the tough part: For students and parents, the increased rigor of the new standards will likely mean that fewer students will score “proficient” on these new tests than on the ones they have been taking for the past 15 years.

But lower scores on the tests should not be an indictment of the new Common Core standards. Rather, they should underscore the hard work that will be needed to ensure our students become critical thinkers who will not need remedial courses in college before they can get started on college-level work. Let’s remember that test scores were also much lower when the previous standardized tests – the California Standards Tests – were first introduced.

The new tests, known as the Smarter Balanced assessments, will be significantly different from what our students are used to – and much more interesting than the tests students have been taking until now. Standardized bubble tests will be replaced by tests that allow students to show much more precisely what they know and are able to do.

Our students will be challenged with assessments that measure how deeply they are able to understand the concepts and, more importantly, use their knowledge to solve real-life problems.

The challenge does not stop there. Educators and district and state administrators have their fair share of challenges as well. If we are to use these assessments for student growth, and not just accountability, educators will need to design and implement systems to use the results to improve teaching and learning at every school.

The state’s push to drive more decision-making to a local district level will mean, among other things, that district administrators will have to design new ways of reporting on multiple measures based on the state’s priority areas. These include academic proficiency, student engagement, school climate and parental involvement. That means no simple single number will be used to describe the entirety of a school’s performance, as was the case with the Academic Performance Index, which is now undergoing revision.

Finally, state administrators will have to design and invest in data systems to collect student and school data from the more than 1,000 districts in our state. And alongside county offices of education, state administrators should provide tools and resources to support each school’s process of continuous improvement.

None of the challenges above will be simple to solve. With a lot of policy and systems yet to be developed, it will take time for students, teachers, principals, superintendents and state officials to adapt to this new world.

Nevertheless, real magic is happening in thousands of classrooms all over our state as a result of the new Common Core standards. These new standards, along with teachers prepared to implement them and the assessments to see whether students are benefiting from them, hold real promise for offering our kids an education that will prepare them for college, careers and life.

If we, as a state, fail to build public will for these changes, if we fail to address the challenges and investment needs at every level of the school system, if we shy away from more rigorous standards and assessments, we will lose the opportunity to offer a world-class education to all of our kids.

We simply cannot afford that. Our students are worth everyone working harder – and together – to provide them a world-class education.


Gina D. Dalma is the senior program officer at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and leads the Silicon Valley Common Core Initiative.

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