Laurie Udesky/EdSource Today

Students taking Smarter Balanced practice tests at Bayshore Elementary School in Daly City.

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is recommending that California develop new annual standardized history-social science tests. But several State Board of Education members raised questions about the tests at their meeting in Sacramento Wednesday, saying it could run counter to California’s efforts to lighten the testing load on both students and their teachers.

The new tests, which would be administered in the 4th and 7th grades, and once in high school, would replace the older California Standards Tests in history and social science that were phased out two years ago as part of a drastic trimming of the number of subject-specific courses students were required to take.

California is in the middle of a major national debate on just how much testing is warranted or needed to hold schools and students “accountable” for progress.

Gov. Jerry Brown has made no bones about his desire to see less testing in schools, and the state is currently putting in place a complex accountability system that includes many other measures in addition to test scores. The debate underscores the difficulties of balancing pressures to measure how students are doing in a particular subject with the desire to administer fewer tests.

“I am concerned we are going down the path of adding assessments for assessments’ sake,” said board member Patricia Rucker, a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association. Several other board members echoed those concerns.

Torlakson presented his proposal in a report required by Assembly Bill 484, which was approved by the Legislature in January 2014, and ended California’s mostly multiple-choice, pen-and-paper STAR testing regimen, which had been in place for nearly 15 years. In its place the state implemented the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, which currently mainly consists of the Smarter Balanced tests in English language arts and math.

Torlakson’s recommendations was based on over a year of  input from a range of groups and individuals, as well as an Accountability and Continuous Improvement Task Force made up of some of the most prominent education leaders in the state.

California is now essentially only administering standardized tests required by the federal government under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, principally the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessments in 3rd- through 8th- and 11th-grade English language arts and math, as well as science in grades 5, 8 and 10.

The new history-social science tests would only be administered for the first time in the 2021-22 school year, which would mean it would be nearly a decade during which California had not administered a statewide standardized test in history or social science.  The last time students took the California Standards Test in history-social science was in the spring of 2013.

The costs of developing the tests would be substantial: an estimated $15.5 million to develop, pilot and field-test them, and an additional $6 million to administer the tests and report the results.

“I worry a little bit about adding another summative test,” said board member Sue Burr, a close advisor to Gov. Brown on education. The term “summative” is used to describe a test that is given at the end of the year to measure the “sum” of what students have learned in a single course.

“You have lots and lots of people who feel very passionate about their discipline, and bless them, but (they) think the only way the public education system will value them is if we test kids at the end of the year, and plug it into some kind of index,” Burr said. She also worried about the amount of time the proposed test would add to a student’s testing load.

Ting Lan Sun, a board member who is the founder and director of a Sacramento-area charter school, agreed. “I have concerns we are rebuilding the testing system we were trying to get away from,” she said. “We need to be thinking about testing in a more creative way.”

State board President Michael Kirst said it was his understanding that the state had already eliminated about 50 percent of the state’s previous standardized testing regimen as a result of passage of AB 484 – and that was before the state suspended the high school exit exam for the next several years. “There has been a substantial cut,” he said.

Among the tests eliminated by the state were standardized tests in 2nd-, 9th- and 10th-grade math and English language arts; end-of-course math tests in Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry, general math and integrated math; all history tests; and end-of-course tests in high school in biology, chemistry, physics and integrated science. 

Schools chief Torlakson is also recommending that the state develop what are called “formative assessments” – a range of classroom-based activities that help inform instruction – to help implement the Next Generation Science Standards.  These would become part of the Digital Library developed to help teachers implement  the Common Core standards and the Smarter Balanced assessments aligned with them.

Another recommendation is for the California Department of Education to “vet” assessment tools in other subject areas such as the visual and performing arts, world languages and technology that could then be made available for use by districts at a local level.  In addition, Torlakson recommends providing “regional support” to schools and districts for implementation of the  “comprehensive assessment system” California is developing.

Torlakson said he welcomed what he described as “a good dialog” and said he would look closely at “how we assess and judge progress” in response to the feedback he received at the meeting. Under the provisions of AB 484, the State Board of Education was not asked to approve or disapprove Torlakson’s plan. Rather, he will send it to directly to the Legislature for its consideration. But clearly the views of the state board, whose members are appointed by Gov. Brown, will influence whatever plan is sent to the State Capitol


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  1. Gail Monohon 7 months ago7 months ago

    U.S.students are woefully ignorant in the social sciences and especially civics. Since it has been clearly demonstrated that “what is tested gets taught” it may be that periodic history-social studies exams really are a necessity.

  2. SD Parent 7 months ago7 months ago

    The current regime is for SBAC tests in ELA and Math in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8; Science tests in grades 5, 8, and once it high school, and now a proposal for History/Social Science tests in grades 4, 7, and once in high school. This is backwards because it puts the most heavy testing burden on the youngest students. Without adding the Social Studies/History assessments, the plan administers 5 … Read More

    The current regime is for SBAC tests in ELA and Math in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8; Science tests in grades 5, 8, and once it high school, and now a proposal for History/Social Science tests in grades 4, 7, and once in high school.

    This is backwards because it puts the most heavy testing burden on the youngest students. Without adding the Social Studies/History assessments, the plan administers 5 tests for students 12 years or younger, but only 2 tests for students in high school. (With the Social Studies/History assessment proposed, it would move to 6 tests vs. 3 in high school.) The irony is that it is when the students are younger that we feel our children are being overburdened with tests because the ability of young children to perform well on a test–especially to explain reasoning of, say, a math problem by typing it on a computer–is neither age-appropriate nor necessarily indicative of their understanding.
    By contrast, once our children reach high school, we have a greater appreciation for the ramifications of standardized testing and would like to know that Johnny learned his English/ Algebra/Geometry before he takes the tests that will have a huge bearing on his future trajectory of his education – namely the SAT, ACT and AP exams.
    I’m not against assessments, per se, as I do feel that they can be informative and are a necessary component of assessing achievement gaps in education. Since assessments become more critical for students as they age through education (in college, their entire performance in some classes may be measured solely on the basis of performance on a midterm and final exam), it would make a lot more sense to reduce the standardized assessments for the younger students and put more focus on making sure that the high school students are proficient.

  3. teacher and parent 7 months ago7 months ago

    Why not include something about a broadly-based curricular focus as one of the multiple measures for accountability? That would increase the likelihood that schools won’t push content courses–at all grade levels–to the side. All a fourth grade test ensures is that content is crammed into fourth grade.

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