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No-Stakes Testing

Patrick Murphy March 12, 2014

Beginning March 18, California’s schools will pilot a new type of standardized test for students in grades three through eight and grade eleven. (A small sample of students in grades nine and ten will also take some tests.) These tests represent a significant departure from the standardized exams that were administered in school classrooms in the past.

First, the examinations are aligned with the new Common Core State Standards; they will attempt to assess conceptual understanding and problem solving skills in mathematics and English. Second, they will be given on computers, replacing the infamous #2 pencil and bubble sheets. Third, and perhaps most important, this spring’s exercise is really a “testing of the test” that will have no consequences for students, teachers, or schools. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education removed the most significant consequence last week when it issued a letter stating that the pilot testing would satisfy the federal requirement that California test its students as part of the No Child Left Behind law.

California is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), one of two multi-state consortia to get federal funding to develop assessments aligned with the Common Core standards. Since 2011, SBAC has been working with teachers, college professors, testing experts, administrators, and technicians to develop a new generation of tests. Though there will be some multiple-choice elements, these new exams will feature open-ended questions as well as tasks for students to perform that involve showing their work. (Some of the open-ended and task-oriented questions will have to be hand-scored by professional readers.)

In theory, the SBAC tests represent a big jump forward in trying to measure learning. This pilot exercise will put that theory to the test, as students try out the questions and the technology used to deliver the tests.

This past summer, the state legislature made some important decisions regarding the transition to the new testing regime (AB 484) that we will now watch play out. One of the biggest was that the pilot tests would replace the old Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessments, saving time for teachers and money for the state.

Because the legislators decided that there would be “no consequences” to this pilot, no letters will appear in the mailboxes of parents over the summer with colored bar charts declaring whether or not their children are “proficient.” The results will not be used to develop accountability scores for schools; nor will they be associated with individual teachers. The purpose of this year’s testing is really to determine whether the tests are doing what they were designed to do: assess student learning.

The demise of the STAR tests will probably warm the hearts of more than a few students. There is a downside to this transition, however. First, it is likely that the results will be publicly reported in the broadest terms, which will limit the chances of anyone other than SBAC to learn from the exercise. Second, given that 2014–15 will be the first full year of SBAC testing, we will have to wait at least until the 2015–16 school year to begin measuring our progress.

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