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California Should Suspend Some Tests for 2013-14, Tom Torlakson Says

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has proposed suspending several non-No Child Left Behind tests for the 2013-14 school year, as part of a proposed overhaul of the state testing system to prepare for the Common Core State Standards.

On Jan. 8, Torlakson released his recommendations for changing California's testing regimen. Suspending those tests, which are part of the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, for the next academic year is among the more prominent ideas—many of the tests that wouldn't be administered next year are end-of-course exams in high school, as well as some 2nd grade tests in English and math. However, federally mandated tests like those in English/language arts and math for students in grades 3-8 would remain to satisfy NCLB requirements. (The U. S. Department of Education recently denied California's request for a waiver from NCLB, as my colleague Michele McNeil at Politics K-12 reported last week.)

The Academic Performance Index, which measures the performance of public high schools in the state, will also have to be adjusted to reflect the suspension of these tests. The precursor to this adjustment, and Torlakson's recommendations, was in September, when Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a fellow Democrat, requiring the state to change API so that it relied less on standardized tests and more on measures like graduation rates and college-readiness.

In a conference call with reporters the day his recommendations were released, Torlakson said the suspension of the non-NCLB tests would allow students, teachers, and schools to transition to the upcoming tests based on the common core set to be first administered during the 2014-15 school year. Specifically, he said the idea of having fill-in-the-bubble tests dictate the form and role of tests in the state needed to end.

"We believe we need to move, and creatively move, to a new assessment," he said.

Deb Sigman, a deputy superintendent for the California education department, said suspending many of the non-NCLB tests would allow the state to "rebuild the system" for administering the common-core tests and help students acquire the "deeper learning" that the tests are intended to measure, specifically critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. (California is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium developing those exams.)

State Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a Democrat and former teacher, stressed the fact that the new tests would allow teachers to adjust their classroom work based on results from their current students, instead of facing the problem of learning about their students' needs on summative assessments after they have moved on to other teachers.

"It's going to create a much stronger learning environment within our classrooms," she said.

Officials on the call conceded that with the role of technology in the upcoming common-core assessments, California was still assessing schools' access to technology. Torlakson noted that in a preliminary survey, the state found that one computer is available for every three students in the state's public schools.

Other recommendations from Torlakson include conducting a study comparing the state's current assessments to the Smarter Balanced tests; considering alternatives to the state's high school exit exam; and considering adopting "matriculation" exams that allow middle and high school students to demonstrate "mastery" of subjects for employers and colleges that could fulfill exit exam requirements. The state department noted that the current high school exit exam would not be suspended as part of Torlakson's recommendations.

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