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Blog Post · September 29, 2015

Why Students Found New Tests Tough

Recently the California Department of Education released the first results from the new Smarter Balanced Assessment test (SBAC), the standardized tests that were administered in spring 2015 to public school students in grades 3 through 8 and 11. As PPIC reported in a recent post, educators were not surprised to learn that proficiency rates in math and English language arts fell, relative to prior tests. However, when polled last April, a majority of public school parents (71%) had expected students to do at least as well on these new tests as they did on the state’s previous standardized tests.

There are a variety of explanations for why students did not do as well, but it is as yet impossible to untangle which, if any, is the primary driver.

  • The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have changed the testing landscape.The test is based on the new standards, which are intentionally more challenging. This would logically lead to lower rates of proficiency.
  • The CCSS have not been fully implemented yet. California is still fairly early in the implementation process, and administrators, teachers, parents, and students are all getting used to the new standards, curricula and materials, and teaching methods. Implementation of any new program takes time. Mike Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, has suggested that full implementation of the CCSS might be completed by 2019.
  • The SBAC test is harder. Both tests rely on multiple choice questions to gauge what students know. The new test also uses open-ended questions that require students to analyze, solve problems, and explain their answers.
  • The test is different than other tests students have taken. It is given online instead of with paper and pencil and it is adaptive rather than the same for all students. This means that if a student answers a question correctly, the next question will be a bit harder but if the student answers incorrectly, the next question will be easier. Students may not be used to using computers for testing and may be experiencing enhanced testing anxiety due to the changes in format and content. In addition, recent PPIC research indicates that not all schools and districts are at full capacity with regard to the computer technology needed to seamlessly test all students.
  • Teachers don’t know what is on the test. Scores on the state’s previous tests may have been inflated because of “teaching to the test,” which reportedly occurred frequently in the old testing regime. With its open-ended questions and adaptive approach, the SBAC test is designed to resist teaching to the test.

California is not the only state to see lower rates of proficiency on the SBAC. Other states, including Connecticut, Delaware, and Washington, have experienced the same phenomenon of lower rates of proficiency. In contrast, Kentucky has seen an increase in its proficiency rates. In some states, even if proficiency rates were low, state policymakers reported being pleased that the results were not as dire as had been expected based on field tests of the SBAC.

The CCSS and SBAC represent a way of guiding California’s K-12 system that addresses shortcomings in the previous standards and tests. Educators have learned that the standards need to encourage teachers to help students use what they learn to answer real-world questions. They also have tried to design the SBAC tests so they no longer drive instruction, but simply provide a snapshot of what students can do. The 2015 SBAC scores represent a starting place for this new regime, and the scores reflect that fact.


common core K–12 Education testing