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Credit: Berkeley Unified School District

Students in California preparing for the Smarter Balanced tests.

Update: This story was updated on Sept. 11, 2015 to include Maine’s scores, and on Sept. 27 to include Oregon’s scores. 

Comparing California scores on tests aligned with the Common Core standards to those in other states isn’t a straightforward process.

California students’ results are among the lowest when compared to the other eight states that have released Smarter Balanced assessment scores so far. But drawing conclusions may be difficult because California’s student population is much larger and its schools enroll more English learners and low-income students. See charts of scores in eight Smarter Balanced states.

“It’s not just a straight across comparison,” Keric Ashley, California’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, warned during a Wednesday conference call with reporters. “We need to factor in being such a large state as we are – a large percentage of English learners, a large percentage of students in poverty. There are a lot of factors that go into place before making that comparison.”

The chart shows a comparison of 3rd grade English language arts results on the Smarter Balanced test in nine states. Click on the graphic to see more results comparing California to other states.

EdSource

The chart shows a comparison of 3rd grade English language arts results on the Smarter Balanced test. Click on the graphic to see more results.

One of the main arguments in favor of the Common Core standards, and the standardized assessments aligned with them, was that for the first time it would be possible to compare annual student performance across dozens of states.

States had the opportunity to administer tests developed either by the PARCC consortium or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which California chose. Some states ultimately chose other tests.

A total of 17 states administered the Smarter Balanced assessments, and eight have released preliminary or final Smarter Balanced scores: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. The remaining states will release their scores later.

UPDATE: On Sept. 11, Maine became the 10th state to release its Smarter Balanced Assessment scores with 48 percent scoring proficient or above in English language arts and 36 percent scoring proficient or above in math. Maine plans to drop Smarter Balanced tests this school year.  On Sept. 17, Oregon released its results, indicating that 54 percent of students scoring at a Level Three or Four in English language arts, and 40 percent at Levels Three or Four in math.

The Smarter Balanced scoring system is the same in every state, ranging from level 1, the lowest, to level 4, the highest – with the same cut scores set for each level – but each state has its own terminology to describe the different levels.

Generally, a level 3 or 4 means a student has met or exceeded the standards. In most states, level 3 is labeled “proficient,” while Connecticut calls it “meeting the achievement level.” In Oregon, it’s simply listed as a 3 or higher on the state’s press release regarding preliminary scores. In California, policy makers have avoided using the word “proficient” in labeling its scores, instead calling level 3 “standard met” and level 4 “standard exceeded.” See descriptions of the score levels.

Not all states have released composite scores for students from all grades who took the tests – grades 3-8, and grade 11 – making it harder to easily compare performance.

But looking at the results that are available from those eight states, most reported a higher percentage of students who scored at a level 3 or 4 in most grades and subjects compared to California.

Compared to the eight states, the percentage of California students who scored at proficient or above was the lowest or tied for lowest in 3rd- through 5th-grade math and 3rd- through 6th-grade English. California ranked fourth from the bottom for 11th-grade math and English. (Missouri 11th-graders didn’t take the Smarter Balanced test.)

But the lower scores in California may be due to the diversity of its student population. Andy Latham, director of WestEd’s Center on Standards and Assessment Implementation, said states with large numbers of English learners and low-income students, like California, will tend to have lower overall scores.

“It could be an explanation why proficiency levels are not as high as we’d hope, but that shouldn’t be an excuse,” Latham said.

The combined number of students in the eight states was about 3.9 million in 2012-13, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics. California’s student population was 6.3 million that year, according to the center.

English learner students made up well under 10 percent of those state’s enrollment in 2012-13. In California, it was 23 percent that year.

Los Angeles County has more English learners – about 350,000 in recent years – than those eight states combined: about 226,000 in 2012-13.

English learners tend to score lower on tests because they are still mastering the language. Many of them are “reclassified” out of the English learner category after they score high enough on standardized tests and those reclassified students fared better on Smarter Balanced assessments.

Also, some English learners may get extra help, such as test directions or a translation glossary in Spanish. English learners who have been in the U.S. for less than a year are exempt from the English language arts test in California, but they still must take the math portion. More than 600,000 English learners, out of 3.2 million students, took the Smarter Balanced tests in California. Of those, 11 percent met or exceeded the standard on both English and math tests.

“It could be an explanation why proficiency levels are not as high as we’d hope, but that shouldn’t be an excuse,” said Andy Latham, WestEd’s director of Center on Standards and Assessment Implementation.

Latham said it would be better to compare California’s English learners’ scores to those students in other states. Only four of the states released some of those English learner results so far.

Also, Ashley warned that each state may give the tests in slightly different ways, such as exempting certain types of questions, making it tougher to compare.

Vermont’s scores for English learners varied widely, depending on the grade level and subject. For example, in English, the percentage of English learners scoring proficient or above ranged from 36 percent in 3rd grade to less than 2 percent in 11th grade.

But Vermont’s number of test takers is tiny compared to California’s: A total of 552 English learners took the Smarter Balanced math test in the entire state. That’s less than the number of English learners in a single Santa Ana high school.

Connecticut released a combined score for “high needs” students, which it defines as the combined number of those eligible for free or reduced price meals and English learners. Of the English learners, the state tested those who have been in the country for at least a year. About 31 percent of “high needs” students scored proficient or above in English language arts and 16 percent in math.

In Missouri, where about 16,000 English learners took tests, about 37 percent were proficient or above in English language arts and 28 percent were proficient or above in math.

Next to California, Washington had the second-highest number of English learners tested – about 47,000. The percent proficient or above on English language arts ranged from 10 to 19 percent, depending on the grade. Because about half of the 11th-grade class opted out of the tests, there were too few students in that grade scoring proficient on the English language arts test for the state to release results.


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  1. Judy Horn 11 months ago11 months ago

    Wait a minute. That sounds like a lot of "Blaming the Kids" to me. Otherwise the percent proficient would align perfectly with the number of non-minority, non-poverty children. Oh wait, we don't measure that number. What about the fact that other states had an extra year to prepare for these tests? While California was changing their minds and switching from the PARC system to the Smarter Balanced System, the other states were … Read More

    Wait a minute. That sounds like a lot of “Blaming the Kids” to me. Otherwise the percent proficient would align perfectly with the number of non-minority, non-poverty children. Oh wait, we don’t measure that number.

    What about the fact that other states had an extra year to prepare for these tests? While California was changing their minds and switching from the PARC system to the Smarter Balanced System, the other states were rolling up their sleeves and getting busy.

    What about the fact that teachers had 12 year old textbooks on their shelves last year aligned to 18 year old standards? The State has not adopted new curriculum for ELA yet, and it won’t for another couple of years. Meanwhile each district is having to scrounge up something to supplement the old stuff. Pinterest has become the newest curriculum leader of the State of California as teachers desperately try and find lessons that will help their kids reach the new standards.

    What about the lack of training on the Common Core? While teachers have spent days listening to how the standards have changed, little to no time has been spent on how to change their lessons to address the new requirements. Teachers are expected to go online, on their own time and sift through lesson after lesson created by master teachers that will address the new standards. First, teachers don’t have that kind of time, and we should be providing training for them. Secondly, the lessons provided are master lessons for the OLD standards. Very few of the lessons that were provided to us addressed the newest elements of the new standards (like citing evidence in 3rd grade to justify your answer) because the lessons didn’t exist before Common Core came out. Even the master teachers are scrambling to provide those types of lessons.

    Let’s face it. We weren’t prepared last year, and that starts at the top! Rather than blaming the kids for tilting our scores, I’d rather hear from our highest leaders that yes, those are our baseline numbers, and here’s our action plan to make improvements. Now that would be news!

  2. SD Parent 11 months ago11 months ago

    Hmm, seems that my comment was deleted. As I indicated in my previous post, one can relatively easily make a more direct comparison between the scores of CA students and those in other states by removing subsets of the data, if one is concerned that the results of certain subsets of students are compromising the comparison. For example, I did some quick and dirty analysis by taking the scores of all students and … Read More

    Hmm, seems that my comment was deleted.

    As I indicated in my previous post, one can relatively easily make a more direct comparison between the scores of CA students and those in other states by removing subsets of the data, if one is concerned that the results of certain subsets of students are compromising the comparison. For example, I did some quick and dirty analysis by taking the scores of all students and removing the scores of all students identified as ELs. Then I calculated new composite scores for CA students, without the scores of the students identified as ELS, and 52% met or exceeded standard in ELA and 39% met or exceeded standard in Math. This still puts the results of CA students who are not identified EL in the middle to lower half compared to the other states (when comparing these new composite scores to each grade level ELA and Math score, as EdSource didn’t publish the composite scores for all students in the other states). One could do the same analysis to discount for poverty, etc.

  3. Kathleen 12 months ago12 months ago

    How many kids are going to fell before we go back to teaching the basics before we expect the kids to do word problems?
    You can’t build a house without a foundation and can’t figure out problems without the basics.

  4. Gary Ravani 12 months ago12 months ago

    It appears it is worth repeating for many who resist the message that this is the first year of SBAC testing in CA. There are issues of technology, issues of "computer adaptive," issues of validity and reliability, issues of implementation of CCSS, issues of demographics of CA student population, issues of poverty v. affluence status of student population, issues of CA's school funding per child, etc., etc., etc. All of these issues need to be … Read More

    It appears it is worth repeating for many who resist the message that this is the first year of SBAC testing in CA. There are issues of technology, issues of “computer adaptive,” issues of validity and reliability, issues of implementation of CCSS, issues of demographics of CA student population, issues of poverty v. affluence status of student population, issues of CA’s school funding per child, etc., etc., etc. All of these issues need to be analyzed and put into an appropriate context, which means about 5 years of collecting new test data, before any possible conclusions about what is going on in CA, let alone comparisons with other states, will make any kind of sense.

    Replies

    • SD Parent 11 months ago11 months ago

      So what do you tell the parents of the kids who are going through this educational process for the next 5 years: "Oops, sorry, it turns out what we've been doing didn't work, and Johnny (and his 6.3 million peers) didn't get a very effective education"? Five years is a LONG time--38% of the time a K-12 student is in school--and the idea that we're going to gamble with their educations (and … Read More

      So what do you tell the parents of the kids who are going through this educational process for the next 5 years: “Oops, sorry, it turns out what we’ve been doing didn’t work, and Johnny (and his 6.3 million peers) didn’t get a very effective education”? Five years is a LONG time–38% of the time a K-12 student is in school–and the idea that we’re going to gamble with their educations (and futures) while the state, districts and educators figure it out is not acceptable.

      • Gary Ravani 11 months ago11 months ago

        SD Parent: I sympathize with your concerns. Too bad you and other parents didn't join with teachers, as well as most educational researchers, when CA and the US, back in the 1990s and early 2000s respectively, embarked on a huge "experiment on children's education" known as the standards, accountability, and testing movement ( memorialized in NCLB). There was never a shred of solid research to support this spasm of psuedo-reform and there is now a considerable … Read More

        SD Parent:

        I sympathize with your concerns.

        Too bad you and other parents didn’t join with teachers, as well as most educational researchers, when CA and the US, back in the 1990s and early 2000s respectively, embarked on a huge “experiment on children’s education” known as the standards, accountability, and testing movement ( memorialized in NCLB). There was never a shred of solid research to support this spasm of psuedo-reform and there is now a considerable amount of evidence showing just what a failure, as measured against its own simplistic goal of improved test scores, it really was. And all of this began 15 and more years ago. Think of the opportunities lost (to a large extent).

        There are several things about the current “counter-revolution” in education that should inspire confidence. Kids are resilient for the most part. It is a shame that so many, particularly the most disadvantaged, were denied much access to a well rounded curriculum for the last 15 years. As much as the new CCSS and SBAC assessments are untried and un-researched, paralleling NCLB and like developments in CA, they also come with new realizations by many policy makers that the standards are more guidelines and not strict mandates demanding teachers become robotic deliverers of scripted instruction. And the policy makers are doing the reasonable thing, by noting that it will take years for the new assessments to actually make much sense. And that the new assessments are, hopefully, going to inform instruction and not just be used for box-score comparisons of schools and districts. Though some are being pretty compulsive about making those comparisons, sensible or not.

        And, finally, teachers are pretty instinctive about doing what they think is best for kids and using instructional strategies that work as the teachers’ experience say they work. Or not. I think the more destructive aspects of NCLB and its state clones were mitigated by teachers working around the pseudo-reforms when they could and as their professional rights and due process rights allowed them to. As long as those professional rights remain in place teachers will continue to do what they believe in their professional judgement is good for learning. And as long as policy makers continue to demonstrate that they understand the top-down mandates of the last 15 years were utter failures, and allow teachers to exercise good professional judgment, things in the classroom will be OK. It would be great to say things in the classroom would be maximized, but that’s only a dream in a state like CA where classroom supports and resources are routinely minimized.

  5. Gary Ravani 12 months ago12 months ago

    From the article: “'It could be an explanation why proficiency levels are not as high as we’d hope, but that shouldn’t be an excuse,' Latham said." First, there is a very consistent inability of most policy makers and pundits to pay attention as to realistic expectations for ELD students. Second, re "low-income students, aka, students in poverty: Poverty is not an "excuse" any more than gravity is an excuse when you fall and injure yourself. Gravity is a … Read More

    From the article:

    “’It could be an explanation why proficiency levels are not as high as we’d hope, but that shouldn’t be an excuse,’ Latham said.”

    First, there is a very consistent inability of most policy makers and pundits to pay attention as to realistic expectations for ELD students.

    Second, re “low-income students, aka, students in poverty: Poverty is not an “excuse” any more than gravity is an excuse when you fall and injure yourself. Gravity is a condition that holds you down, or pulls you down sometimes powerfully, as does poverty. Certainly there are outliers, students who grow up in poverty and yet end up excelling academically. An analogy is the 5’6″ NBA player who could dunk a basketball. He was an outlier. We don’t try and set up PE standards that demand that any student 5’6″ or taller should be able to dunk a basketball to be considered “proficient” in physical education. We should not encourage like policies for academics.

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