California will give a short version of its standardized math and English tests next spring

September 10, 2021

The “Smarter Balanced” standardized tests in math and English language arts that California students will take in the spring to measure their academic progress will have fewer questions and take less time than the pre-Covid versions. But the test results to parents won’t provide as much information as in the past.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved the shorter test that the California Department of Education recommended. The shorter version will give districts more flexibility in scheduling the tests, free up time for more instruction and reduce the potential for internet glitches with fully online test, the department argued in making its case.

It’s actually identical to the short version that the board approved for spring of 2021, when most districts were still in distance learning.

At that time, given the option of administering Smarter Balanced or their own local assessment, many, if not most, chose a test other than Smarter Balanced last spring. It’s hard to know, however, because the state didn’t require that districts report their choices or the scores.

But the Smarter Balanced tests will be mandatory in spring 2022. The department says the short version of the combined math and English language arts tests will take 4 1/2 hours for grades 3 to 5, 90 minutes less than before; 4 hours, 45 minutes for grades 6 to 8, 75 minutes shorter; and 5 ½ hours for 11th grade, 2 hours shorter.

Performance tasks — the longer problem-solving and research exercises on the test — will remain intact, while the multiple-choice questions will be cut in half.

Scores will be just as accurate, since the proportion of questions will be equally reduced in all areas of the tests, said Mao Vang, director of the department’s Assessment Development and Administration Division. And parents will receive their students’ scores along with their ranking — whether the scores were far below standard, below standard, at standard or above.

What parents won’t get is their child’s scores on components of the test: reading, writing, listening, and research and inquiry for English language arts; and concepts/procedures, problem solving, communicating reasoning and data analysis for math — at least next year.

This lack of detail is why a number of civil rights and groups advocating for low-income students opposed the short form.

“Losing key summative data makes it more difficult to gauge performance on key standards, and more difficult to tackle equity of opportunity and identify achievement gaps” across ethnic and racial groups, testified Lexi Lopez, communications manager for the advocacy group EdVoice. “During these times, schools should be providing parents with more information about student performance — not less.”

The Local Control Funding Formula Equity Coalition, representing a dozen statewide organizations, argued that a shorter test could actually result in more total testing time, because districts “may end up backfilling” information not provided by Smarter Balanced by administering additional local assessments.

But districts should be using more “interim” tests and short or “formative” assessments throughout the year that “allow educators to drill down and see how students are doing within particular content and topic areas,” said board President Linda Darling-Hammond. That’s what the state should be encouraging, said Darling-Hammond, an emeritus professor in education at Stanford University.

Seven of the 12 states that use the Smarter Balanced tests used the shorter form last year, and many will probably do so again this year, said Tony Alpert, the executive director of Smarter Balanced. The department staff didn’t say whether they’d recommend continuing with the short form in future years, although they indicated that might be the case. But they said that use of the short form in the spring would not interfere with plans by 2024 to add a “growth model” as a way to measure student test scores. A growth model is a technically complex but useful method that all but a few states use to measure the progress over time of individual students’ test scores. The state board adopted it in May, five years after the idea was first raised.

Darling-Hammond and other board members said that it’s possible that the pandemic may create challenges for months and that a shorter version would provide more flexibility to administer the test. Reflecting first-hand views of a teacher and a student, board members Haydee Rodriguez and Rana Banankhah also said to use the short form.

“I want to echo what’s already been said. I’ll just say that with my experience as a classroom teacher, I’m in support of this recommendation,” said Rodriguez, a bilingual and bicultural high school teacher at Central Union High School, near the Mexican border.

“I found that this shortened test was absolutely beneficial to my class, especially those connecting from home who had trouble with tech issues, which definitely slowed them down. And I was one of those students,” said Banankhah, a senior at Modesto High. “Students with internet issues are probably going to be disproportionally socioeconomically disadvantaged and rural students. This recommendation would definitely improve equity among students.”

Smarter Balanced scores next spring will be publicly reported and applied to the California School Dashboard in 2022 for the first time in three years. The rating system measures improvement or lack of progress in schools and districts using multiple indicators. However, the dashboard’s color rating system ratings won’t reappear until 2023.

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