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California Changes Spark Confusion About High School Testing

What tests will high school students in California take this spring, now that the state appears to be on the brink of dumping most of its current testing regimen? That's a good question, and one that's causing confusion in the Golden State.

As we reported to you, Assembly Bill 484 has passed both houses of the state legislature and now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. That bill calls for replacing math and reading tests in grades 2-11 with field tests designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

This spring, it says, students in grades 3-8 and 11 will take those field tests. Department officials have said that students will take them in either math or English/language arts. But they've also said that the state's 11th California Standards Test in math and reading, embedded with additional questions that determine students' readiness for credit-bearing work on California State University campuses and in community colleges, will still be given. (The enhanced version of the 11th grade CST is known as the Early Assessment Program, or EAP.)

The legislation says that the Smarter Balanced tests will replace the 11th grade test in 2015, but it doesn't spell out what will happen this spring. Will students take both the field tests and the current 11th grade test?

It also makes no mention of the CAHSEE, California's exit exam, which students take initially in 10th grade, and may repeat if they don't pass. Passage is required for graduation.

An email I received from the humanities coordinator of a charter-school group in the state captured the confusion this has created. She wrote to me after reading in my story—much to her surprise—that the 11th grade test would stay in place under the new law. Deputy Superintendent Deborah Sigman had told me this in an interview.

The way the charter-school educator has sized up the landscape, she and her colleagues must prepare 11th graders to take the CST with the embedded EAP questions, and 10th graders to take the exit exam, since they have not been told that the exit exam is being dropped. Whether or not 11th graders will take the Smarter Balanced field test on top of the old test is also an open question, she said.

"We can't afford to not prep kids for [the 11th grade test] because EAP directly affects our kids not having to take remedial classes at CSUs," she wrote. "We can't afford to not prep kids for CAHSEE because they can't graduate without it. So no matter what Deb Sigman says, we are in a bad place and there WILL be 'double testing' at the high school level.

"The whole thing is incredibly frustrating for teachers and people like me who coach them," the coordinator wrote. "In addition to being a cheerleader for Common Core, this year I have to tell my 11th grade teachers to prep for CST and EAP, my 10th grade teachers to prep for CAHSEE standards and question format, and my 9th grade teachers to cross their fingers and pray."

This coordinator emailed state officials in June and asked if the CAHSEE would still be given in 2014. She was told that it would be, even though that test is not aligned to the common standards, which California has adopted.

I reached out to the state department of education for clarification, but little was forthcoming. Spokeswoman Pam Slater said that the department's focus has been on how it will juggle the transition from STAR testing to Smarter Balanced field testing. She referred me to a January report by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, in which he made recommendations for revamping California's assessments.

In that 174-page document, Torlakson says he believes it is "appropriate to consider" alternatives to CAHSEE, such as using the Smarter Balanced tests, or exams such as the PSAT, ACT or SAT, or end-of-course exams. The only thing said about the EAP is that it would not be suspended.

Slater said that there are "no current discussions going on here at CDE related to CAHSEE."

"There are still areas of haze, but this is a work in progress," she said.

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