Schools face challenge of explaining Common Core test results to parents

June 2, 2015
smarter balanced, common core, sbac, CAASPP

As school districts wrap up administering new online assessments aligned with the Common Core, educators now face another challenge: how best to share with millions of parents how their children fared on the tests.

At stake is whether parents – and by extension students themselves – will be able to understand what the scores on the new tests mean. Without that understanding, test scores on the new online tests could raise anxieties among both parents and students, including whether students are being adequately prepared for the next grade, college and the workplace.

One special concern among educators is that they anticipate fewer students will meet standards compared to those who scored proficient on the California Standards Tests students took until the spring of 2013.

Scores on the new tests will be reported in four categories: standard exceeded, standard met, standard nearly met and standard not met.

If large numbers of students score lower than “standard met” on the tests, known as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP, that could fuel opposition to the Common Core, which in California has so far been relatively muted compared to many other states.

The timing of the release of student scores is also important because a major selling point of the new Common Core assessments was that because they were taken online, they would be available more quickly to teachers, parents and students, and would help inform instruction in a way that the multiple-choice California Standards Tests did not.

But so far it seems that parents and students will get results about the same time as they did in previous years – in mid- to late summer – at a time when schools are not in session. Parents and students may not have an opportunity to discuss the results quickly with the child’s teacher.

In an attempt to address those concerns, school districts are discussing how to prepare to answer questions.

In the six districts and the charter school network that EdSource is tracking as they implement the Common Core, officials are holding sessions with principals to explain reports, planning to hold parent meetings when school resumes and putting together letters that will accompany the official state parent reports.

The California Department of Education recently finalized what its parent reports will include and look like for the Smarter Balanced assessments – tests based on the nationally developed Common Core State Standards taken by students for the first time this spring.

As of May 29, almost 3.2 million students had started the Smarter Balanced assessments, nearly all of them students in 3rd through 8th grades and 11th grade, who are supposed to take the tests statewide. California is one of 18 states giving the Smarter Balanced assessments.

Some districts, including the Fresno Unified School District, are adding their own parent letters and explanations, along with the state-designed parent reports.

Aspire Public Schools, which has 35 charter schools in California, plans to provide explanations in English and Spanish, as well as schedule Saturday sessions for parents to go over results.

The Visalia Unified School District already held a meeting with principals to go over the format of the scores so they can be ready for questions over the summer, said Phil Black, Visalia’s director of assessment. Most Visalia schools have some staff available over the summer.

“We’re anticipating that we’re going to get calls,” Black said. “If we’re better informed, we can better inform our parents.”

In the Santa Ana Unified School District, the elected governing board will review the reports after the district receives the full results, most likely in the summer. Also, schools are expected to hold meetings around the time classes return, said Michele Cunha, the district’s coordinator of student achievement.

Elsewhere, the San Mateo County Office of Education has been sharing information with its districts, including newsletters, sample articles and timelines, to explain what to expect from the Smarter Balanced tests and results.

While fewer students are expected to meet the standards on the new tests, state officials warn parents that Smarter Balanced scores are just one measurement of how well a student is doing.

“The parent should talk to the teacher and the school about how the student is performing,” said Julie White, communications director for the State Board of Education, in a webinar with reporters in May.

California State Parent Teacher Association members helped state officials prepare the report format so parents can understand it. PTA leaders are urging school chapters to discuss the Smarter Balanced results during back-to-school meetings.

“We all want parents to understand that this new system exists.… You can’t pull out last year’s letter and you can’t make a comparison,” said Patty Scripter, the California State PTA’s vice president for education. “This is the first step. And next year, you will be able to see how your child’s progress is going.”

State officials warn that individual results should only serve as a starting point to see how well students have mastered the new Common Core standards so far, as they can’t be compared with previous results on the California Standards Tests. Fewer students are expected to meet the standards on the new tests because they are based on the Common Core, which is still being rolled out in classes and is more demanding than the previous standards.

Individual student scores range from 2,000 to 3,000 and are categorized using the four achievement levels on the standards.

One big difference from the previous test is that, in addition to an overall score, parents will receive details about each student’s performance. For each subject, the report breaks out skills, such as “research/inquiry” for English language arts or “problem solving” for math, and states whether the student met the standard.

State officials have made a key change from a draft report approved in March by the State Board of Education: There will be no comparisons to the student’s scores on the field test he or she took in the spring of 2014. (A story about the parent report and state board discussion can be found here.)

Some educators and experts complained that a comparison would be unreliable because the field test was given to weed out questions and check how the test itself would work. In the end, state officials weighed whether the comparison was more helpful or confusing, opting to leave it off, Keric Ashley, deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, said during the webinar briefing with reporters.

Instead, there will be no comparisons on the reports – only results for the student. Average scores for the state and for individual districts won’t be finalized and released until late summer or early fall.

Next year’s report will have a different format and is set to include comparisons to the previous year’s scores so parents can see whether their children’s performance is improving.

While most parents won’t get their children’s results until late summer, hundreds of districts have already started receiving early results for individual students.

But those results are meant only to be used at the district or school level. District officials are reluctant to do much with the results, such as revise their instruction methods, because the scores are trickling in slowly. Some district officials said they plan to wait until they have more or all of their scores before drawing any conclusions or making decisions.

Separate score reports designed for parents come later.

About eight weeks after an entire district completes testing, the state mails individual letters intended for each parent in the state to districts. Then, each district has 20 days to distribute the reports to parents.

The scores could have a direct impact on high school juniors. Under the Early Assessment Program, students can skip remedial courses at California State University, community colleges and other campuses if they score high enough on the Smarter Balanced assessments. If they score too low, 11th-graders are directed to use their senior year to enroll in classes or take other measures to prepare for college.

High school juniors had the option of checking a circle during the test if they wanted their scores to be considered for the Early Assessment Program.

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