Credit: UC Davis
Activities and Recreation Center at the University of California, Davis.

Gov. Jerry Brown may soon decide whether to let California school districts choose to give high school juniors the SAT or ACT instead of the state’s current standardized tests in math and English language arts. He’ll be lobbied hard by both sides of the issue if Assembly Bill 1951 does pass its last hurdle — approval by the state Senate — and arrives on his desk by the end of next week.

Dozens of school superintendents, along with organizations representing school boards and administrators, are behind the bill. Some districts already offer a college readiness exam at their own expense to all juniors, in addition to the state-mandated Smarter Balanced assessments. Eliminating Smarter Balanced will let them cut back on high school standardized testing while encouraging more students to apply to a 4-year college. Combining free SAT or ACT with tutoring, Saturday classes and other preparation for the tests, as Long Beach Unified and other districts have done, has helped raise SAT and ACT scores, enabling students to get into the college of their choice, they argue.

“This is about getting more kids into college and getting more underserved students to take the ACT or SAT — smarter testing, not more testing,” said Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, a former high school history and government teacher who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and is the author of AB 1951.

But two opponents who will have the governor’s ear, State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, a longtime Brown adviser, see the bill through a different lens. They say Smarter Balanced tests were designed specifically to test students’ knowledge of the Common Core standards that California adopted. That has never been the purpose of the ACT and SAT, which measure students’ readiness for college work. The College Board, which administers the SAT, points to its own studies that say the SAT is strongly aligned to the Common Core. An analysis by the national education nonprofit Achieve found this is only partly so and recommended against using it as a replacement for a state high school assessment.

In a Aug. 21 letter to state senators urging a “no” vote on AB 1951, Torlakson wrote that the bill would “undermine” the state’s new accountability system, because the SAT and ACT would not produce accurate scores that can be compared with Smarter Balanced scores, especially for the lowest-performing students as well as students with disabilities and English learners. The California Advisory Commission on Special Education also opposes AB 1951 because it says that the ACT and SAT do not provide the same set of accommodations that English learners and students with disabilities receive for the Smarter Balanced tests. Therefore, these students would be at a disadvantage compared with other students, Gina Plate, the commission’s chairwoman, wrote in a July letter.

O’Donnell says that he is not taking those concerns lightly. Under the bill, the next state superintendent would have to affirm that those and other issues are addressed before authorizing the use of either the SAT or the ACT. There would have to be comparable accommodations for students with disabilities; the state would have to certify that the tests measure the state’s academic standards and that the scores are valid — all requirements under federal law. And a rigorous federal “peer review” panel, appointed by the U.S. Department of Education, would have to verify that the same conditions have been met for any state that wants to substitute a “nationally recognized high school assessment” like the SAT or ACT for a state test.

School districts would then have to choose one of the options for all of its students. The state would cover the test administration cost at the rate of reimbursement for the Smarter Balanced test. Most districts would likely choose the SAT over the ACT, since in California that’s the assessment that most college-bound juniors take.

O’Donnell says what shouldn’t be lost in this discussion is what counts for students. Juniors take a lot of tests in the spring: the SAT or ACT — some students take both — and a test for every Advanced Placement course they take. The test that means the least personally to students is Smarter Balanced, whose scores aren’t used to determine college admissions.

In March 2017, Kirst and Torlakson asked the University of California and California State University systems to consider incorporating student scores on the Smarter Balanced 11th-grade tests into their admissions decisions — as a potential replacement for the SAT and ACT. This week, Kirst released a letter from a UC admissions administrator who said that the university Academic Senate had authorized a study of Smarter Balanced 11th-grade scores to determine if it would be appropriate to do so.

In an interview this week, Kirst said, “We have talked for hours with decision makers in CSU and UC.” The possibility that there may be action within the next year or so is another reason not to pass AB 1951 this year, he said.

SAT and ACT scores are no longer mandatory at hundreds of colleges, including the California State University; however, SAT/ACT scores are included in the Eligibility Index that determines admission to impacted CSU campuses. And the UC requires either the SAT or ACT.

“Students feel invested in the SAT, not Smarter Balanced,” O’Donnell said.

Superintendents in the 30 districts and charter school organizations that administered the SAT this past year without charge say that it is integral to raising students’ aspiration for going to college. Richard Sheehan, superintendent of the Covina-Valley Unified District in Los Angeles County, credited the SAT-for-all for significantly raising the percentage of district students who qualified for admission to CSU and UC.

Smarter Balanced tests are given in grades 3 to 8 and only in grade 11 in high school, so there is a two grade-level gap in measuring students’ academic progress. Long Beach and West Contra Costa Unified are filling it by administering the Pre-SAT, or PSAT, assessments in 9th and 10th grades to identify students’ weaknesses in math and reading and to guide teachers’ instruction. They’re also supplementing the SAT with extensive tutorials from Khan Academy, the free online site that has partnered with the College Board to close the “test prep” gap — the hiring by wealthy families of private tutors who guarantee they can boost a student’s SAT score.

Comparing multiple tests is problematic

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act explicitly permits states to use the SAT or ACT for a high school assessment for federal accountability purposes. The College Board reports that nine states, including several that had been using Smarter Balanced, are offering the SAT; only Connecticut at this point has gone through federal peer review and the results have not been released. Oklahoma offers districts the choice between the SAT and ACT, and North Dakota will offer both the ACT and the state’s new standardized test.

But California would be the first state to offer a choice of three tests, and that prospect alarms education measurement experts like Edward Haertel, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. Despite the bill’s assurances, scores from schools, districts and student groups who have taken two or more “very different tests, developed according to different specifications to serve different purposes, administered under different conditions” are not interchangeable and will not be comparable, he wrote in a letter to the Assembly Education Committee.

“We may wish such a thing were possible, but it simply cannot be done,” he wrote. Methods of converting them to a common scale would “fall far short of providing the degree of comparability California’s state-of-the-art school accountability system would require.”

AB 1951 marks the third attempt by Long Beach Unified Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser to get the authority to use the SAT in lieu of the Smarter Balanced test. In the spring of 2017, Torlakson and Kirst denied his request for a waiver from using Smarter Balanced. A bill that O’Donnell sponsored last year at Steinhauser’s request to set up a pilot program using the SAT failed to get out of the Assembly after Torlakson lobbied against it. AB 1951 has more momentum, with more districts and organizations like the California School Boards Association behind it.

O’Donnell can take solace if it too falls short. Brown, Torlakson and Kirst all retire this year. He can make another pitch to their successors in 2019.

Share Article

Comments (16)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. John Fensterwald 1 month ago1 month ago

    Kim: Smarter Balanced and the California Standards Tests are two different tests based on different standards, and so the scores cannot be compared. What is true that more 11th graders, by far, achieved at or above standards on the English language arts Smarter Balanced test, which is aligned to the Common Core, than students in 3rd to 8th grades. However, by far, they did worse in math. What does that mean? Hard … Read More

    Kim: Smarter Balanced and the California Standards Tests are two different tests based on different standards, and so the scores cannot be compared. What is true that more 11th graders, by far, achieved at or above standards on the English language arts Smarter Balanced test, which is aligned to the Common Core, than students in 3rd to 8th grades. However, by far, they did worse in math. What does that mean? Hard to say, but it could relate to how the achievement levels were set for each grade. As you can see from the link to the July letter from a UC administrator cited in the story, UC has agreed to study the results of the first students to attend UC campuses who took Smarter Balanced to see whether the scores did correlate with success in college and should be used for placement purposes for college-level work.

    Replies

    • Doug McRae 1 month ago1 month ago

      John & Kim -- The difference between ELA and Math for Smarter Balanced 11 grade tests does definitely relate to the process used to set achievement standards (i.e., cut scores). If you look at the SB standards-setting tech report on the SBAC website dated early 2015, the recommendations from the standards-setting panels would have allowed for the Math percents met to be roughly 10 points higher while the ELA percents met would have been roughly … Read More

      John & Kim — The difference between ELA and Math for Smarter Balanced 11 grade tests does definitely relate to the process used to set achievement standards (i.e., cut scores). If you look at the SB standards-setting tech report on the SBAC website dated early 2015, the recommendations from the standards-setting panels would have allowed for the Math percents met to be roughly 10 points higher while the ELA percents met would have been roughly 15 points lower. But, after the panels made their recommendations, the policy making body changed the recommendations from the panels (made up of primarily people from the district and school level, largely teachers). The policy making body consisted of the state superintendents of public instruction from all governing SBAC states. The rationale for the SSPI changes was to make SB cut scores more consistent with NAEP grade 12 scores. Unfortunately, NAEP grade 12 scores are not representative of national achievement levels, NAEP grade 12 data is based on unrepresentative data from around 12-15 states mostly from southern states, basically not a good set of data to serve as the basis for a credible standards-setting effort.
      We’ve been living with that flaw in the SBAC standards-setting process for four testing cycles now.

    • Zeev Wurman 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Building on Doug's point, one should recall that while the grade 3-8 achievement scores are barely visible to the general public, the 11th grade results serve as a prominent measure of "college-readiness" and get much larger exposure in state and national press. Consequently, the political interest of SBAC leadership to "pad" those results is understandable, even if not welcome. The results can be seen by the fact that SBAC's "college readiness" differs *widely* from the previous … Read More

      Building on Doug’s point, one should recall that while the grade 3-8 achievement scores are barely visible to the general public, the 11th grade results serve as a prominent measure of “college-readiness” and get much larger exposure in state and national press. Consequently, the political interest of SBAC leadership to “pad” those results is understandable, even if not welcome.

      The results can be seen by the fact that SBAC’s “college readiness” differs *widely* from the previous measures of college-readiness as defined by CSU. This is also the driving force behind forcing CSU and CCC to eliminate their entry-level examinations and remediation courses, so the fake SBAC “college-readiness” will not be exposed for the fraud it is for as long as possible.

      For example, the 2015 ETS report comparing the previous STAR-based college-readiness (embodied by the EAP program) found that only 76% of those who scored “college ready” in ELA by SBAC would score as college-ready by the CSU measure, and over 40% of SBAC’s “conditionally-ready” would be scored as not-ready by CSU. In math, less that 40% of those found “college ready” by SBAC are found college-ready by CSU’s own measure. (See tables 3.6-3.8 here: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/ca/documents/eapstudy.pdf )

      One can find more information on issues with SBAC test in California here: https://www.hoover.org/research/troubling-saga-smarter-balanced-test

  2. Kim Kenne 1 month ago1 month ago

    I guess we've moved beyond discussing the very large jump in 11th grade English language arts SBAC scores (from CST levels). I don't understand why, since this was the only subject/grade level that saw that type of jump and was made up of students who had the least exposure to Common Core during their academic career. I guess I could take the state's insistence on sticking with the SBAC tests a little more … Read More

    I guess we’ve moved beyond discussing the very large jump in 11th grade English language arts SBAC scores (from CST levels). I don’t understand why, since this was the only subject/grade level that saw that type of jump and was made up of students who had the least exposure to Common Core during their academic career. I guess I could take the state’s insistence on sticking with the SBAC tests a little more seriously if they would look into and explain this anomaly.

  3. Dick Jung 1 month ago1 month ago

    So glad your podcast pursued this issue rather than the speculation about DeVos'/US Department of Education alleged support of using federal money for schools to buy guns. Seemed to be quite even-handed laying out of the arguments on both sides of the SAT/ACT vs. state assessment for 11th graders. I bet your prediction about the governor's support of his SBE and CDE's leadership holds true during the coming vote ... if it comes to … Read More

    So glad your podcast pursued this issue rather than the speculation about DeVos’/US Department of Education alleged support of using federal money for schools to buy guns.
    Seemed to be quite even-handed laying out of the arguments on both sides of the SAT/ACT vs. state assessment for 11th graders. I bet your prediction about the governor’s support of his SBE and CDE’s leadership holds true during the coming vote … if it comes to that.
    PS 1951 – great year for Chevys and amazing number of California legislative proposals so far this year.

  4. Muvaffak Gozaydin 1 month ago1 month ago

    Who should go to university? That is the question.

    MIT has solved it before they accept a student to their Micro Master Program passing the first 2 courses they may take. If they do not pass first 2 courses, they are not accepted to the program or say a college. It is wonderful. No waste of time or money. A wonderful measurement if one can go to college. No SAT no this and that.

  5. John Fensterwald 1 month ago1 month ago

    Bill, don’t blame superintendents (as if they are a monolithic group) for the initial decision to include the 11th grade Smarter Balanced results in the career and college indicator. The State Board of Education made that decision. Board members considered including the 11th grade scores in both the academic indicator and the career/college indicator, as some parents and advocacy groups urged, but decided against including it in two places. As it turns out, the federal … Read More

    Bill, don’t blame superintendents (as if they are a monolithic group) for the initial decision to include the 11th grade Smarter Balanced results in the career and college indicator. The State Board of Education made that decision. Board members considered including the 11th grade scores in both the academic indicator and the career/college indicator, as some parents and advocacy groups urged, but decided against including it in two places. As it turns out, the federal government demanded, as part of the approval for the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan, that it be moved to the academic indicator, so that’s where the 11th grade results will be, as of the next data release later this year.

  6. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago

    With regard to Doug McCrae's comment. The Smarter Balanced assessment is a state accountability measure that gauges the effectiveness of the adults within the system in preparing all students for college and career. It is a summative assessment. It is not intended to provide formative feedback to students or families. If the professionals are using high quality standards-aligned curricula and also using professional practices systematically at high levels the results of the Smarter Balanced assessment … Read More

    With regard to Doug McCrae’s comment. The Smarter Balanced assessment is a state accountability measure that gauges the effectiveness of the adults within the system in preparing all students for college and career. It is a summative assessment. It is not intended to provide formative feedback to students or families.

    If the professionals are using high quality standards-aligned curricula and also using professional practices systematically at high levels the results of the Smarter Balanced assessment will be high as well and that is the whole point of these assessments. Accountability for the adults not the children.

  7. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago

    It is understandable while superintendents in high school districts want to jettison the Smarter Balanced assessment in favor of the ACT/SAT as an accountability measure. After all, they convinced the state not to include 11th grade Smarter Balanced assessment results in the Academic Indicator on the Dashboard - hiding it in an obscure College and Career dashboard element. You can see the poor results of 11th graders on both the Math … Read More

    It is understandable while superintendents in high school districts want to jettison the Smarter Balanced assessment in favor of the ACT/SAT as an accountability measure. After all, they convinced the state not to include 11th grade Smarter Balanced assessment results in the Academic Indicator on the Dashboard – hiding it in an obscure College and Career dashboard element. You can see the poor results of 11th graders on both the Math and ELA on the Smarter Balanced assessment at http://sipbigpicture.com. Performance of ELs, Students with Disability, Hispanics, Blacks, and Economically Disadvantaged students are dramatically low.

    So it is easy to see the rationale for the superintendents as there is no place to hide after the amazingly inept Department of Education called the state on its ESSA hiding scam! So what’s a state to do but look for an easy solution rather than look to the root cause of improving curricula and professional practices!

    The Achieve group has already written extensively about the inappropriateness of using SAT/ACT results for accountability purposes due to the lack of alignment among the standards and the assessment items. For example, only about 1/2 of items on the SAT align with ELA standards.

    White kids and Asian kids will also have an advantage as they distort the results due to the tendency to take prep courses to prepare for the tests. Teachers will also feel pressure from district administrators to adapt their teaching the ACT/SAT rather than the standards as is pathology that emanates from these tests as well.

    Overall it is a bad idea but of course that will not stop the supes who are always looking out for themselves and their 6-figure salaries!

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 1 month ago1 month ago

      Bill, don't blame superintendents (as if they are a monolithic group) for the initial decision to include the 11th grade Smarter Balanced results in the career and college indicator. The State Board of Education made that decision. Board members considered including the 11th grade scores in both the academic indicator and the career/college indicator, as some parents and advocacy groups urged, but decided against including it in two places. As it turns out, the federal … Read More

      Bill, don’t blame superintendents (as if they are a monolithic group) for the initial decision to include the 11th grade Smarter Balanced results in the career and college indicator. The State Board of Education made that decision. Board members considered including the 11th grade scores in both the academic indicator and the career/college indicator, as some parents and advocacy groups urged, but decided against including it in two places. As it turns out, the federal government demanded, as part of the approval for the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan, that it be moved to the academic indicator, so that’s where the 11th grade results will be, as of the next data release later this year.

  8. Jason Angle 1 month ago1 month ago

    The Common Core State Standards were created to increase the college/career readiness of students as they exit the K-12 educational system. The SAT and ACT are designed to measure the college readiness of students. This means the SAT and ACT are very well aligned with the spirit and intent of the Common Core State Standards, even if they do not assess the specific standards taught by 11th grade in California. If there … Read More

    The Common Core State Standards were created to increase the college/career readiness of students as they exit the K-12 educational system. The SAT and ACT are designed to measure the college readiness of students. This means the SAT and ACT are very well aligned with the spirit and intent of the Common Core State Standards, even if they do not assess the specific standards taught by 11th grade in California. If there is a misalignment, then we have a larger issue of holding students and schools accountable for multiple definitions of college ready.

  9. SD Parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    For high school students, the CAASPP is nothing more than an autopsy of how well--or, based on California's current statistics, how poorly--the students have learned logical and critical thinking and/or the material. And every time the results are not what are expected--that is, higher scores--folks like Michael Kirst and Tom Torlakson claim that it’s too early to draw conclusions, teachers are still learning how to teach the new concepts, the test is still in … Read More

    For high school students, the CAASPP is nothing more than an autopsy of how well–or, based on California’s current statistics, how poorly–the students have learned logical and critical thinking and/or the material. And every time the results are not what are expected–that is, higher scores–folks like Michael Kirst and Tom Torlakson claim that it’s too early to draw conclusions, teachers are still learning how to teach the new concepts, the test is still in development, etc.
    Instead of the current practice, it would be better to administer the CAASPP earlier in high school, when there is still time to help those students who are struggling. Testing in alternating years of elementary school would seem sufficient. Then instead of 8th and 11th grade (autopsies for middle and high school), students could be tested in 7th and 9th or 10th grade. This would provide guidance for instructional focus areas and still allow the standardized test that matters most—SAT or ACT—to be administered to all students at no personal cost in 11th grade. This is not only a boon to disadvantaged students, but it also gives all students the summer to work on determining which post-secondary options would be their best fit and possibly study to re-test in the summer or fall to improve their scores.
    O’Donnell is right: College-bound students do not care about the CAASPP but are focused on the SAT or ACT (and AP exams). The bottom line is that for virtually all universities and colleges in the nation, these are the only standardized tests that matter. To ignore that reality is to ignore the goal of most of California’s students.

  10. Meena Rao 1 month ago1 month ago

    In my 25 years of teaching high school math in California, I realized that 11th graders do not take state tests seriously unless it counts towards their graduation requirements. Since CAHSEE is obsolete now, California can require a certain minimum score on Smarter Balanced test for a high school diploma. Such a requirement exists in many developed countries around the world.

    Replies

    • Bruce William Smith 1 month ago1 month ago

      It does; but in developed states such as Switzerland and Quebec and in developed districts like Singapore and Shanghai, future university students reach the Common Core mathematics standard by around the end of the 9th grade, and most will have studied calculus by the end of 11th; so if Californians want their children to benefit from a genuinely world-class test-based accountability system, they will opt their children out of the state schools altogether, and into … Read More

      It does; but in developed states such as Switzerland and Quebec and in developed districts like Singapore and Shanghai, future university students reach the Common Core mathematics standard by around the end of the 9th grade, and most will have studied calculus by the end of 11th; so if Californians want their children to benefit from a genuinely world-class test-based accountability system, they will opt their children out of the state schools altogether, and into private institutions that will achieve these SAT levels by the end of ninth grade, leaving candidates two years to prepare for AP exams such as Calculus BC and English Literature and Composition, along with a couple more in subjects like chemistry and physics (this describes the 11th grade year of my son Ryan, and is pretty similar to what his older siblings did), so that they have a real chance to compete with genuinely world-class students as Ryan did when he travelled to Cambridge for its engineering interview.

  11. Doug McRae 1 month ago1 month ago

    The SAT/ACT or Smarter Balanced policy debate for high school statewide tests per AB 1951 does not have to be an either/or option for each local school district. Rather, there is potential for an individual-student-choice option that would permit each student to take a test that matches each student's instructional pathway. For CA comprehensive high schools that offer multiple instructional pathways for their students, no one-size-fits-all test will ever appropriately measure all students and their … Read More

    The SAT/ACT or Smarter Balanced policy debate for high school statewide tests per AB 1951 does not have to be an either/or option for each local school district. Rather, there is potential for an individual-student-choice option that would permit each student to take a test that matches each student’s instructional pathway. For CA comprehensive high schools that offer multiple instructional pathways for their students, no one-size-fits-all test will ever appropriately measure all students and their varied instructional pathways. An individual-student-choice option is described in a 5-page assessment design policy brief produced and circulated several months ago. Go here for the policy brief.
    This design option is being explored by several other states, including Arizona, allowing for multiple tests to be employed using a so-called Menu Option permitted by ESSA statutory language. The assessment design brief describes both test development & test administration issues that need to be addressed, as well as test score utilization & statewide aggregate and subgroup data issues. It would take several years of planning work to flesh out an individual-student-choice option that would match test content to each student’s instructional pathway.

    A Menu Option design is worthy of consideration by California policymakers, far better than the SAT/ACT vs Smarter Balanced design choice per AB 1951.