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California Proposes Major Assessment Changes

As states move closer to the common assessments designed by the two big state consortia, some are confronting what's becoming known as the "double testing" dilemma. How do they manage giving both their own state tests, and also the consortium field tests scheduled for the spring of 2014?

A plan unveiled in California this week showcases some of the difficulty involved in resolving that dilemma.

A proposal working its way through the state legislature would dump most of the state's longtime testing program, called STAR, next spring. The science portion of the test would remain in place. But the multiple-choice tests in reading, math, and social science, which had been administered annually to all students in grades 2-11, would not be given. (Two exceptions, for the year 2014, would be an alternate assessment for the most cognitively disabled students and the Early Assessment Program, which is given to 11th grade students to gauge their readiness for community college or the California State University system.)

If approved, California's plan would mean that the bulk of its math and English/language arts assessment in 2014 would be accomplished by using the field tests being designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two big groups of states designing tests for the common standards. Those tests are scheduled to be completed and operational in the spring of 2015.

A statement from the California education department says that the results of those tests will be used only for "test-development purposes," not for accountability, since they are only "tests of the tests." While some see this as a welcome way to smooth the transition to the common standards, others have criticized it as a way to temporarily sidestep accountability.

According to a report by EdSource's John Fensterwald, Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman laid out the plan for the California board of education yesterday.

In a telephone interview with EdWeek, Sigman explained that the state proposes to give the math field test to 10 percent of its students and the English/language arts field test to another 10 percent. That will meet Smarter Balanced's need for a scientific sample to advance the development of the test. The rest of the state's students would be expected to take either the math or the English/language arts field test as well, she said. The savings realized from cutting out most STAR testing can be used to finance the broader administration of the field tests, she said.

Sigman said that involving more students in the Smarter Balanced field test is a valuable way for school systems to adjust to the common core, and to make sure that there is no disconnect between the state's tests and what it's teaching in its classrooms.

"We think this is a great opportunity for teachers and students and parents and administrators to get a look at what these tests are," she said. "Part of this is giving schools and districts the time and space to implement the common core; a set of standards was approved by our state board in 2010. The policy behind this is, we don't want to give an assessment that's not aligned to our current set of standards. We want to have people look forward, not backward."

The testing changes are contained in a set of amendments to Assembly Bill 484, which guides the state's transition to the common core, and has been under discussion in Sacramento. Originally, the bill would have continued the STAR system until the final SBAC tests were available. The proposed amendments would facilitate a quicker move to the Smarter Balanced system.

As we've reported to you, double-testing is a concern in spring 2014, since both PARCC and Smarter Balanced are planning field tests then. It's a particular problem in Smarter Balanced states, since more students are required to participate in order to make a bank of test items big enough for the consortium's computer-adaptive exam.

The U.S. Department of Education recognized this problem, and said in guidance about its offer of flexibility to states that it would consider proposals that eased this burden.

During the 2013-2014 school year, the department is also working to help states avoid double-testing students, which often happens during the shift to a new test. The department is open to requests from any state to allow schools participating in these field tests to administer only one assessment in 2013-2014 to any individual student—either the current statewide assessment or the field test. For those schools, accountability designations would stay the same for a year, and the same targeted interventions would have to continue, with no relaxation of accountability requirements. Any state that will be impacted by double-testing in the 2013-14 school year may request this waiver for their impacted schools.
California, however, is not a state that obtained a waiver from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. So its change in testing would presumably need approval from the federal Education Department. A spokesman there declined comment.

The California board of education voted Wednesday to allow Superintendent Tom Torlakson and state board President Michael Kirst to begin a proposal to the Education Department that would allow the state to move forward with its proposal, Sigman said.

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