Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource
Students work in the library at Skyline High School in Oakland (2014).

A half-dozen states are planning to swap their 11th-grade statewide assessment tests for the SAT this spring. Long Beach Unified wanted to join them, but California’s state superintendent and State Board of Education president emphatically said no.

In a lengthy letter last month, the superintendent of California’s third-largest district asked the State Board of Education for permission to substitute the SAT for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exam in math and English language arts, which the state requires all districts to give. Long Beach currently administers both tests, which it says is pointlessly duplicative.

“Our high school students and parents see far greater value in the SAT than (Smarter Balanced) because the SAT is the main assessment affecting college admission,” Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser wrote in arguing for a waiver from state law requiring all students be given the Smarter Balanced test.

Along with administering Smarter Balanced, 22 districts in California currently give the SAT to all 11th-graders as part of their effort to encourage more students to apply to a four-year college, and that number is expected to increase to 32 next year, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT. Long Beach was the only district so far to ask to give the SAT exclusively.

But in a Feb. 23 response, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and state board President Michael Kirst detailed the SAT’s shortcomings as a Smarter Balanced substitute and said state law wouldn’t permit the waiver. They concluded that the “SAT would require significant adaptation before it could be used for accountability purposes in California.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law, allows states to choose a “nationally recognized” high school test, such as the SAT or ACT, as the 11th-grade test, and Long Beach’s proposal is consistent with a national trend. Twenty-five states now require students to take a college placement exam in 11th grade, either the SAT or ACT. Of those states, a dozen – split between ACT and SAT – will use the tests to measure student achievement for state and federal accountability purposes, according to an annual Education Week survey. Of six states switching to the SAT for accountability, three are Smarter Balanced states that will continue to give the test to grades 3-8: Connecticut, Delaware and New Hampshire. In California, twice as many students take the SAT as the ACT.

As the biggest state in the 14-member Smarter Balanced consortium – down from 18 states two years ago – California has been influential in setting Smarter Balanced policies and in aligning the 11th-grade test with its definition of college readiness. Students who score at the third-highest of four score levels are conditionally ready to take college-credit courses at a California State University campus, which means they must take an additional math or English course in their senior year. Those who score at the top level are defined as ready.

In his letter, Steinhauser points out that the SAT’s benchmark scores for college readiness are used for college admission at 2,400 colleges nationwide, including CSU. And he noted the correlation of Long Beach students’ performance on the SAT and Smarter Balanced: on both tests, 49 percent of students met or exceeded standards.

SAT has a different purpose

Kirst and Torlakson also characterize the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced exam as a test measuring students’ readiness for college.

When it approved the state’s new multimeasure school accountability system this past fall, the state board included the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced test as one component of the College and Career Readiness Indicator, the measure of how well a school and district prepares students for options after high school graduation.

But in their letter, they said that under federal law, an 11th-grade test must be aligned to measure a state’s academic standards in math and English language arts, which for California is the Common Core. Smarter Balanced was designed specifically to measure students’ mastery of the Common Core. The U.S. Department of Education has set up a “peer review” process to determine a test’s validity, reliability and alignment to state standards. The new version of the SAT, which states first gave last year, hasn’t gone through that evaluation yet.

The College Board has done its own study, which found that “the alignment of the California state standards with the SAT Suite of Assessments is strong to very strong” ­– with the exception of speaking and listening skills that the SAT doesn’t test. But Kirst and Torlakson doubted whether the SAT would satisfy the alignment requirement “without significant revisions.”

The SAT was created for another purpose, “determining readiness for college-level work, independent of the content standards or curricula used for instruction,” they said. And that raises another concern: whether it is valid and reliable for measuring performance “across the entire spectrum” of students, including very low-performing students, English learners and students with disabilities. The SAT is not designed to measure the low performers, and those students could charge Long Beach with discrimination if the SAT were the only test, the letter said.

Torlakson and Kirst also said that the SAT, which is still a pencil-and-paper test, doesn’t adequately accommodate students with disabilities. The online Smarter Balanced test meets those requirements.

Steinhauser wrote that the SAT offers advantages that Smarter Balanced lacks. Smarter Balanced gives no 9th- or 10th-grade test, so there’s a gap between the 8th and 11th grades. Long Beach begins giving the Preliminary SAT (the PSAT) starting in the 8th grade and provides various supports, including individualized online tutorials through Khan Academy, to identify academic weaknesses and to encourage students to pursue college, the letter said. About 77 percent of Long Beach graduates enroll in college, “an enviable figure” considering that 70 percent of students live in poverty, Steinhauser wrote.

“For the sake of equity and college access, we owe it to our students, especially our underrepresented populations, to substitute the SAT” for Smarter Balanced, he wrote. Avoiding duplicative tests would free up time and resources for students to focus on Advanced Placement tests, also administered by the College Board, which coincide with the Smarter Balanced testing period.

The state made a similar argument against duplication when it argued to the federal government that California should not have to give two versions of science tests to students this spring, Steinhauser wrote. (The U.S. Department of Education rejected the request, but the state is ignoring the denial and giving the pilot form of the new test it is developing.)

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  1. Jonathan Raymond 9 months ago9 months ago

    We talk a lot about equity in education but do we really approach it starting with the end in mind - outcomes? For all our children isn't this the potential of admission and ability to persist and graduate from college and higher education prepared for careers and civic engagement? As we move from the era of "No Child" with its punitive and prescriptive accountability system to the "Whole Child" we should be encouraging robust ways … Read More

    We talk a lot about equity in education but do we really approach it starting with the end in mind – outcomes? For all our children isn’t this the potential of admission and ability to persist and graduate from college and higher education prepared for careers and civic engagement?
    As we move from the era of “No Child” with its punitive and prescriptive accountability system to the “Whole Child” we should be encouraging robust ways to measure students knowledge and readiness for college and careers. This can and should include performance assessments and other means that enable students to demonstrate their knowledge and achieve success. One of the greatest failures of No Child Left Behind is the very children the law was trying to shine the light on were the ones doing poorly on assessments without proper supports and opportunities to see themselves as successful. Do we think substituting one test for another addresses this issue?
    The PSAT does several things – perhaps most importantly it identifies children ready to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. AP courses, are designed to be more rigorous and students that struggle to complete the class gain critical skills preparing them to persist at the next level of higher education. Why wouldn’t we encourage more school districts to take such a coherent and equitable approach as Long Beach is proposing? Wouldn’t we learn from experiences like Long Beach’s to help design a system of measurement and supports that encourages and incentivizes students success?

  2. Paul Muench 9 months ago9 months ago

    Sounds like using the SAT would help address 11th grade students’ chronic disregard for state tests.

  3. doug liser 9 months ago9 months ago

    Could someone please explain why we need an entire testing infrastructure in California instead of using the SAT? Please explain in standard English and not “Ed-speak.” What I do understand is that the state has what may amount to more than $100 billion in underfunded pensions and if we are unwilling to even entertain ideas like this, we could easily end up with expensive testing and few teachers left employed.

  4. Floyd Thursby 9 months ago9 months ago

    I like this idea. It'd be better if every Californian took the SAT and we could compare results. I've argued that the SAT Test is the closest thing we have in this society to a morally neutral measure of human goodness. It was called racist, but Asians and Nigerians beat whites on it by a long shot, on average, as well as many other groups. It was called sexist, but girls … Read More

    I like this idea. It’d be better if every Californian took the SAT and we could compare results. I’ve argued that the SAT Test is the closest thing we have in this society to a morally neutral measure of human goodness. It was called racist, but Asians and Nigerians beat whites on it by a long shot, on average, as well as many other groups. It was called sexist, but girls now outperform boys. If every family organized their family life to what leads to the best SAT Score, we’d see most social problems disintegrate, families wouldn’t divorce, would avoid drugs, would turn off the TV, study longer hours, do flashcards with their kids, get them reading novels over summer and winter breaks and looking up words, studying grammar, doing workbooks, learning and passing to their kids proper, standard, mainstream English if they don’t already speak it, saving money, spending less on frivolities, etc.
    Grades are more arbitrary because it’s tougher to get good grades at difficult schools, but the SAT Test is the same for all. If all members of society strategized towards the top SAT Score, our economy would be much stronger and we’d be more unified. This will help parents to plan ahead. There are many things you can do to help your child thrive on the SAT, and all are good and make you a better person more ready to compete in the world, more productive. It would force an honest evaluation of how we spend our free time and organize our families. Some groups even thrive on the SAT when poor. They prioritize very well.
    These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

  5. Bill Younglove 9 months ago9 months ago

    I respect, greatly, Superintendent Steinhauser's reasoning behind the desired switch from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing to the SAT, in part because College Board head, David Coleman, has worked hard to better align the SAT with the Common Core State Standards. Additionally, I find Long Beach Unified's alignment of the PSAT, the Khan preparation, and the SAT testing outcomes unusual and admirable. There are, besides, other ways than via computer testing to accommodate students … Read More

    I respect, greatly, Superintendent Steinhauser’s reasoning behind the desired switch from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing to the SAT, in part because College Board head, David Coleman, has worked hard to better align the SAT with the Common Core State Standards. Additionally, I find Long Beach Unified’s alignment of the PSAT, the Khan preparation, and the SAT testing outcomes unusual and admirable.
    There are, besides, other ways than via computer testing to accommodate students with special needs. In fact, “mode effect” is just beginning to arise, a perceived discrepancy between paper and pencil–and computer-based testing outcomes. Perhaps state legislators will see Superintendent Steinhauser’s request as a most reasonable one.

  6. mary b 9 months ago9 months ago

    I would be more inclined to believe the Superintendent if he used accurate numbers. Using most recent data submitted by Long Beach Unified, 42.3% of the graduates meet the A-G requirements. I guess his quote,”About 77 percent of Long Beach graduates enroll in college, “an enviable figure” considering that 70 percent of students live in poverty,” applies to THOSE students. Not all of those poor kids.

  7. Doug McRae 9 months ago9 months ago

    The Torlakson/Kirst Feb 23 letter lists four substantive reasons for rejecting Long Beach's request to use the SAT rather than Smarter Balanced tests for CA's accountability system purposes: (1) The new SAT has not had independent peer review for alignment to the full depth and breadth of Common Core content standards; however, neither have Smarter Balanced tests, as indicated in ED's Jan 18 peer review letter to CA; (2) The SAT does not measure … Read More

    The Torlakson/Kirst Feb 23 letter lists four substantive reasons for rejecting Long Beach’s request to use the SAT rather than Smarter Balanced tests for CA’s accountability system purposes: (1) The new SAT has not had independent peer review for alignment to the full depth and breadth of Common Core content standards; however, neither have Smarter Balanced tests, as indicated in ED’s Jan 18 peer review letter to CA; (2) The SAT does not measure the entire spectrum of performance; however, neither does Smarter Balanced, as acknowledged in Smarter Balanced’s June 2016 submission for ED’s peer review, admitting that SB tests have “gaps” in their item bank for measuring students at the low end of the achievement spectrum; (3) Smarter Balanced’s computer-administered tests provide better accessibility and supports than SAT’s paper/pencil test; certainly computer-administered tests do potentially offer better accessibility and supports, but the computer-administered approach for statewide assessments is a double-edged sword in that many CA students have yet to have experience with computer-administered instruction sufficiently to generate valid scores on a computer-administered test; and (4) SAT is not reported on the Smarter Balanced scale of measurement needed for comparability required for CA’s accountability system; however, Long Beach has the capability of documenting the equivalence of SAT and Smarter Balanced scores for their students as needed to submit “estimated” scores on the SBAC scale of measurement, much like CA used CAHSEE scores as estimated substitutes for STAR performance standards from 2004 to 2013 to avoid administering a duplicative test at the high school level.

    The bottom line is that Long Beach has a good substantive case for using SAT scores as substitutes for Smarter Balanced scores for CA accountability purposes; the substantive reasons provided in the Torlakson/Kirst Feb 23 rejection letter are not compelling.