Teachers, too, will learn a lot from new tests

September 8, 2015

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The initial release of statewide test scores in California this week will reveal how well schools, districts and groups of students did in classes aligned with the Common Core standards. With two-page reports that will be mailed to their homes, parents will find out how well their children did on the new Smarter Balanced tests on the Common Core. And with their own database of information, teachers will learn how effectively they’ve taught them.

The state is gradually rolling out the Online Reporting System, a web-based tool that will enable teachers and principals to easily analyze their students’ end-of-year test results in more detail than under the previous Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, program, which Smarter Balanced replaced. The new testing system is now known as the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance, or CAASPP. ETS developed the data system for California and other states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

One of the promises of online testing – and Smarter Balanced in particular – was that teachers would receive preliminary student test results quicker – potentially before the end of the school year for most students – and be able to analyze them at a level of detail that will enable them to spot strengths and gaps in their instruction. The Online Reporting System is designed to be the tool that will allow them to do that.

“Better data than before about students in real time is the goal,” said State Board of Education member Patricia Rucker.

The database is still being phased in; at this point, only district and school site administrators have access to student reports in the Online Reporting System. The California Department of Education and ETS expect to complete permission protocols that will extend the data to the students’  teachers by late October. And ETS is dealing with technical issues involved with reporting the data with the detail that will most help teachers pinpoint areas of curriculum and instruction to focus on. Meanwhile, districts could provide printouts of the results or make them accessible by uploading files through their existing data systems. Data reports for the next round of  Smarter Balanced tests, in the spring of 2016, should be available weeks before summer vacation, under the state’s contract with ETS, according to Keric Ashley, state deputy superintendent.

But, from what they’ve seen so far, district assessment administrators and a teacher who got a run-through liked what they saw. The state Department of Education also provided EdSource a preview of the system.

“Teachers want to improve their practice, so they can’t wait to get hold of the data (to ask), ‘What can we do differently?’” said Susan Green, director of assessment, evaluation and planning for the San Juan Unified School District.

Source: California Department of Education

Students will receive a score between 2000 and 3000 on math and English language arts falling within one of four performance levels. Emily’s score for English language arts is slightly in Level 3, indicating she satisfied the overall requirements of the standards. The line encompassing the dot is the margin of error.

Initially, teachers will get electronically the same test information that a parent will receive in the two-page paper report, except that a parent will see one child’s score, while teachers will look at class results. Teachers can then break down the information by various student subgroups, such as English learners. Over time, both current and former teachers will be able to compare scores from previous years.

Parents will receive their child’s four-digit scores in math and English language arts. The scores  fall within one of four levels, from Level 1, “standard not met,” to Level 4, “standard exceeded”; other states are equating Level 3, “standard met,” with “proficient,” but California isn’t using the term.

The reports then break down math and English language arts to their key components, which Common Core calls “claims.” These were called “clusters” under the previous state standards.

There are three for math:

There are four “claims” for English language arts:

There won’t be a student score for each component; instead the reports will say whether the student was above, below or at/near the standard for each. This information is useful to teachers, said Julie Steiger, an 18-year teacher who teaches 4th grade at Mariemont Elementary in San Juan Unified. “If you have a group of students who scored high in a claim area, you can focus instead on another area.”

Green cited an instance this month where the information on math claims will change instruction. Teachers at a high-performing San Juan elementary school noticed scores lagged on problem solving and communicating reasoning compared with procedures.

“They realized that they hadn’t been asking deeper questions” involved in mathematical reasoning, Green said. “They’ve decided to build into their curriculum next winter two complex assessments, requiring students to apply their knowledge to solve a problem and then explain their answers. Watching teachers learn and then make changes to instruction this year has been very exciting.”

Data at the claims level is comparable to what parents and teachers received from STAR reports on the California Standards Tests, although Smarter Balanced says that claims emphasize students’ ability to apply knowledge covered by the standards.

The biggest advantage for teachers is that the online system will drill down to the next layer of detail, breaking each claim into multiple components that more closely match the curriculum that teachers teach. These elements are called “targets.” For 5th-grade reading for example, teachers will see, among other targets, how well students:

Individual students won’t receive scores on targets. They will be statistically valid, depending on the numbers of students tested, only at the class or grade level, Ashley said. ETS should complete the target breakdowns sometime this winter, he said.

By matching targets with standards, teachers could identify strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum and areas of instruction that need work. They could identify subgroups of children in a school that need extra help in particular areas. Scheduling is more time-consuming in high schools, but some elementary schools assign students to the next grade by the end of the school year. Green envisioned the students’ current and next year’s teachers going over data together, to plan for individuals or groups of students.

Perhaps a student identified as gifted did poorly on the Smarter Balanced tests. If assigned to her class, Steiger said, she would come up with a motivational strategy to see that the student starts the year primed to learn.

“The target level is what we are really excited about,” Green said. The usefulness of the data  pinpointing weaknesses and strengths in curriculum and instruction “will be dramatic,” she said.

Timing will be critical. Under ETS’ contract with the state for next year, districts will start receiving individual student results three to six weeks after completing math or English arts tests. They won’t all come at once. Districts with earlier test dates will get theirs first. And the district and school totals are only preliminary; final results won’t be released by the state until August – at least a few weeks earlier than the initial results from this year. But they will be useful for instructional purposes, and for the first time, teachers could receive the data before the end of the school year, depending on when districts administered the tests.

Since STAR was paper-based, teachers had to rely on districts’ central offices to upload CDs of information and provide reports they requested. Teachers should have easier and fuller access to their students’ data under the new system, assuming districts make it available to them. Rucker, a former teacher who is now a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, is concerned that districts that are used to controlling who gets to see data and when will restrict access. She is optimistic that they will grant it.

Ashley agreed. “It is our expectation that more than in the past, every teacher should have access to make real-time decisions.”

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