Parents to receive easier-to-read reports on Smarter Balanced test scores

June 7, 2016

Parents across California will soon find out how their children performed on Smarter Balanced tests aligned with Common Core standards in math and English language arts.

A key change this year is that the score reports show student progress from last year to this year. The reports will include simplified text and easier-to­-read graphics than last year, according to new samples approved by the state.

Parents should receive their children’s reports during the summer. This is earlier than last year, when some parents didn’t receive their children’s score reports in the mail until October or November, said Celia Jaffe, vice president of education for the California PTA.

The tests were first administered last year as part of the state’s California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP testing system. Each spring, more than 3 million students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 take the Smarter Balanced assessments.

The state PTA has teamed up with the California Department of Education to provide parent guides to help explain the tests and has developed its own reader­-friendly explanations. Brochures detailing the math and English language arts standards are also available on the state’s website.

In addition, parents can find new resources including a template letter about the testing window and a parent checklist touting “5 Ways You Can Be Prepared” for the second year of testing. New parent guides and videos are available this year in English and other languages, said Michelle Center, director of the assessment, development and administration division of the state Department of Education, at a meeting of the state Board of Education last month.

California is working with the Smarter Balanced Consortium to launch a new website soon at that will include parent resources about the Common Core State Standards, the tests, descriptions of achievement levels, sample questions, and other information, she said. This is expected to be completed in the next few weeks, said Peter Tira, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, in an e­mail.

He said students’ paper score reports should start being mailed to districts this week, adding that the state originally expected the reports to be mailed by the end of May, but the department extended that timeline to give districts extra time to order Spanish versions of the reports and update other information.

“The new website will launch soon after that,” Tira said.

This year, the student score reports include orange bands that show at­ a glance whether or not students met standards in math and English language arts. Under the bands, two bar charts show the students’ growth or decline in scores and achievement levels from last year to this year.

Overall student achievement levels are: standard exceeded, standard met, standard nearly met, or standard not met. Next to the bar charts, this year’s reports show a breakdown of the four areas in English language arts and three areas in math that make up the overall scores, along with three achievement levels: below standard, near standard, or above standard.

This year’s reports show the achievement levels graphically, with check marks beneath the levels in which the student scored, such as in “reading” under English language arts or “concepts and procedures” under math.

For 11th-graders, the reports explain whether students are considered ready for credit-bearing college courses in the California State University system.

Jaffe said the new reports make it easier for parents to see their children’s strengths and weaknesses.

“That’s a big improvement,” said Jaffe, who participated in two focus groups aimed at improving the way test scores are reported to the public.

She said many parents didn’t understand the connection between the overall scores and the smaller categories last year because they were on different pages of the report.

However, Jaffe predicted that parents may need help this year understanding that if students get the same overall numerical scores as they progress in grade levels, their performance levels will go down because the score ranges increase annually.

“We try to explain it like a growth chart at the pediatrician’s office,” she said.

For example, a 3rd­-grader meets standards in English language arts with a score of 2432 on a scale of 2114-­2623. But a 4th-­grader needs to score 2473 to meet standards on a scale of 2131-2663. An 11th-­grader must score 2583 on a scale of 2299­-2795 to meet standards.

A new template letter for parents explains that the tests are important because they measure how well students have mastered skills and content, based on what they are learning in school. It says teachers can use the scores “to provide targeted help to students to address their needs” and includes websites with more information, including a practice test.

The Parent Checklist offers these five ways to prepare for the tests:

In parent focus groups, the greatest criticism “was the belief that the tests were separate from the daily work that took place in the classroom and therefore did not reflect what their children actually learned every day,” researchers found.

But the state insists that the tests measure what students are learning and invites parents to take the practice tests so they can see for themselves.

Jaffe said the extent to which parents believe the tests are measuring what their children are learning varies from classroom to classroom and school to school. Similarly, she said some schools could be further ahead than others in using scores to inform instruction.

The scores, she said, provide “valid assessment information about how your kids are doing against expected outcomes, so it’s quality information that we hope good use is being made of ­because that’s the crux of the system – to improve teaching and learning.”

Last year, districts didn’t get the online test score results until August or September, too late to influence instruction in the same year when the tests were given. Yet, one of the major selling points of the Smarter Balanced tests when the full set of tests were administered for the first time last year was that schools would get the results much more quickly than they did under the old California Standards Tests, and that the scores would be more useful in informing how students were taught.

Despite the sped-­up timeline reported by some districts this year, it is too soon to get a complete picture of the experience of the nearly 1,000 school districts in California – and just how much the test scores will be used to shape how or what children are taught.

This year, districts are receiving student scores electronically through the state’s Online Reporting System much faster, giving schools more time to review them to help in planning for the end of this year or beginning of next year.

Keric Ashley, state deputy superintendent, said districts receive online student scores three weeks after students complete testing and receive paper reports to be sent to parents seven weeks after testing is finished. This means most districts –­ which complete testing by the end of June –­ will receive all student reports by August.

“The only caveat,” he said, “is we do have a few districts that test all the way to July.”

Travis Burke, a teacher in the Santa Maria­-Bonita school district in Santa Barbara County, said the three­-week turnaround time for online student scores could benefit teachers. The reports, he said, could help teachers determine whether students are receiving effective instruction, and whether additional teacher training is needed in specific areas.

“I think at the teacher level, you can start to do things in terms of what you review for the end of the year or communicate to next year’s teachers,” he said. “It puts the students in a better position to have what they need.”

Some districts and schools plan to hold parent meetings to help explain the student score reports. Jaffe told the state board that parents are very curious about the reports and have shown great interest in the informational materials, especially sample test questions.

“They are very interested in the use of the scores both locally and statewide,” she said, adding that her organization tells parents the ways schools and districts are using the scores is still not clear.

The new student score reports, she said, should help parents and teachers pinpoint areas of concern, since they summarize what the test results mean more clearly than last year’s reports.

“The bottom line for parents,” Jaffe said, “is ‘Are my children where they need to be?’ That is the item of most interest.”

To help parents answer this question, the state PTA has created a flier titled: “Assessments: Questions to ask about your child’s score reports.” It includes suggested questions parents can ask their children, teachers, principals and superintendents, such as: “How can I help my child be successful?”

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