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Lesson 9.3

Standardized Measures of Student Learning

How can this test be too easy and too hard?

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It has become somewhat unfashionable to focus on test scores as the key measure of student learning. (OK, it has become very unfashionable.) Without fixating on any one measure, it is important to acknowledge how extraordinarily successful these tests have been.

  • Standardized test results quickly and conveniently measure students’ knowledge and skills in ways that allow for comparisons.
  • Improve student learning in ways that improve their ability to score well on certain exams and, over time, the economy grows. That’s a pretty powerful connection.

Because testing often works as a way of measuring skills, its history extends back to pharaohs and emperors, generals, and captains of industry. Because testing doesn’t always work, and because it has often been misused, that history is somewhat checkered. Historically, tests have been extensively used as a tool for efficiently "weeding out" candidates -- or perhaps for identifying the best-prepared ones. In the last few decades, however, the purpose of testing has broadened. Among other things, test results serve as guideposts for school leaders and teachers to choose how to spend their time. They also serve to identify where students are falling behind -- a necessary step to overcome wishful thinking and do something about it.

California’s testing system is changing

Over time, California has used a multitude of standardized tests to measure student learning. From about 2002 until 2013, the foundation of the state’s testing system was the STAR tests, also known as the California Standards Tests or CSTs. 2014 marked the beginning of the end of the CSTs, as the state embarked on what will likely be a lengthy transition to a new testing system called the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP, once also called CalMAPP). The catalyst for this change was California’s adoption of the Common Core standards in English and math, accompanied by the state’s use of computer-based Smarter Balanced assessments.

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Critics of standardized testing argue, in part, that it is a poor use of time. The tests are dull, and for too many students they have felt irrelevant. Some argue that standardized testing is a degrading intrusion that squeezes the soul out of learning and teaching.

High Stakes or Low Stakes?

Standardized state tests are sometimes described as "high-stakes" tests. This description seems to imply a sense of risk to students if they do poorly. In fact, students have no great reason to cheat on standardized tests. Quite the contrary: it can be difficult to persuade students even to bother taking state tests seriously. (In 2011 Los Angeles began including standardized test scores in students’ grades to give them some skin in the game.)

Teachers and administrators have slightly more reason to feel pressure than students do, if only for the sake of reputation. The growing focus on test scores has placed pressure on teachers and administrators that has led to cheating scandals among the adults. If educators or school leaders do not believe that tests are a valid measure of learning, incentives based on test scores can create temptations.

The CAASPP test

California's "Smarter Balanced" tests, the CAASPP, are administered in grades 3-8 and 11

In 2014 California began a new testing system using computer-based assessments developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). The assessments are delivered in English and math for grades 3 to 8 and for 11th grade. California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) tests show growth in a student's score from year to year, and include margin-of-error markings, which can be thought of as how a score might have changed if the student had taken the test again.

Sample report to parents Sample CAASPP report

Numerous resources can help understand these reports:

One-page resource guides to help parents and guardians understand student score reports are available in many languages. A video tour of a sample report is available in English (below) and in Spanish.

Adaptive Tests: the Goldilocks Ideal

Goodbye, #2 pencils and filling the bubbles, and hello, Goldilocks! Administering tests on computer was a big change. It enabled the consortium to design adaptive tests that adapt to the skills of the test-taker. In the past, when students were all given the same paper test, inevitably the questions would stump or frustrate some students and bore others. An adaptive test like CAASPP presents each student with a different version of the test, drawing questions that vary in difficulty (and score value). Ideally, each student takes a "Goldilocks" version of the test. Not too hard, not too easy: just right. The goal is to more successfully evaluate each student's "level" in fewer questions and with higher certainty than with paper tests.

Alternate Assessments

To meet the needs of students with disabilities, California also provides computer-based "alternate assessments" (CAA) aligned with the Common Core Standards. The goal: Ensure that students with significant cognitive disabilities achieve increasingly higher academic outcomes and leave high school ready for post-secondary options. (These assessments replaced the CAPA tests.) Watch the video to learn more. (Spanish version here).

Despite critics, some tests are here to stay

Critics such as education commentator Diane Ravitch point to evidence that standardized tests have led schools to focus narrowly on the subject areas that are tested. (In education jargon this is known as “narrowing the curriculum.”) Class time for art (see Lesson 6.8 The Arts), music, and even science has been squeezed because teachers and school leaders feel pressure to ensure that students score well on tests of math and English.

In California, standardized testing has significant public support, but policymakers have also been listening to the critics. The State Board of Education (SBE) has been charged with developing recommendations for expanding CAASPP to include additional assessments such as history/social science, technology, and visual and performing arts.

Goodbye, High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE)

For many years, California required high school students pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) to qualify for a diploma. A one-size-fits-all bubble test, CAHSEE was a cake walk for most students. In 2015, the exam was suspended altogether as a graduation requirement, including retroactive suspension of the requirement to the 2002-03 school year.

For most students, the high school exit exam was laughably easy. The CAASPP test, by contrast, is designed to be challenging for all students, because it adapts as you take it to present harder or easier questions.

The mixed effects of exit exams have been extensively researched. For some students, there is evidence that CAHSEE served its intended role as a kick in the pants. But there is also evidence that this effect was outweighed by its unintended role as a catalyst for students to give up on high school entirely. Either way, the exit exam seems gone and unlikely to return.

Hello, Early Assessment Program (EAP)

When high school students take the CAASPP test, they have a personal reason to care about their score. Through the Early Assessment Program (EAP), scores on CAASPP may be used by colleges as evidence of students' readiness for college-level work without taking remedial courses. Both the California State University (CSU) and community college systems have endorsed CAASPP. (For more about the EAP, see Lesson 9.4.)

The SAT and ACT

Will a student do well in college? If you could only know one fact about the student to predict his or her college fate, what should it be? Grade point average? SAT score? ACT score?

The best predictor of a student's success in college is his or her grade point average in high school...

According to research from the College Board (the maker of the SAT) the best predictor of a student's success in college is his or her grade point average in high school. The makers of the ACT exam agree, and so does independent research. So why not rely on grades alone? Because the combination works even better. Colleges give significant weight to standardized test scores in admitting students because they predict student success in college. For the SAT, student scores on the writing section have been especially powerful predictors.

...but the prediction is even better when combined with standardized test scores.

The impact of test scores on college admission isn't entirely in the hands of admissions offices. In a self-sorting effect, some students who actually might be quite successful at a "stretch" college don't risk applying if they think their scores are too low, or that they can't afford the test. By requiring the SAT or ACT as part of the application, colleges lose some applicants. Fee waivers are available for both the SAT and the ACT for students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

Other measures of student performance

As a broader, more engaging alternative to standardized testing, some have proposed that students should demonstrate their competency by producing a “portfolio” - the high school equivalent of an undergraduate thesis project. Students negotiate a research topic with advisors, and produce multi-disciplinary work that demonstrates their knowledge and abilities in several subject areas. Their portfolios are graded against a set of "rubrics" that incorporate state standards. The state of Vermont went farthest in formally adopting this strategy, and in the process demonstrated many of its challenges. Portfolio assessment remains uncommon, and the term has fallen somewhat out of favor. If your child is working on a "senior project" or a "senior thesis" this may be an echo of the portfolio idea.

A rubric is a tool teachers use to score student work. It’s also used to help both students and teachers understand "what counts." Rubrics convey the expectations related to a school project, for example, and generally include a rating scale. Teachers use them to assess students’ work and as a teaching and learning tool. Students generally get the rubric before they begin an assignment and can use it as a guide for what they need to do and for what quality work will look like. For example, here is a rubric that could be used to give Ed100 a grade!

Of course, the results that really matter are long-term, and have little to do with scores. Real success in education is determined by the life path options that a student is able to access as a result of that education. Those options are the subject of the next lesson.

Next Steps

Parent leaders (ahem, such as Ed100 participants and PTA leaders) play a vital role in demystifying these tests. Work with your principal to organize a meeting at your school to go over the new tests and the California standards. A good resource to start with is this infographic that answers frequently asked questions.

One of the best ways to understand a test is to try it out yourself. Here are some practice tests:

Tips for talking to your child about the new assessments from the California State PTA

  • Ask Your Child: What areas do you think you should particularly focus on this year, based on your test results? What do you see as your strengths to build on?
  • Ask Your Teacher: How will these tests results be used to guide instruction this year? What can we do at home that will help your child learn and be successful? How are other important subjects assessed?
  • Download and share PTA fliers with more English and Spanish


Why is the CAASPP, California's main standardized test, administered on computers?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 16, 2017 at 10:27 pm
"Portfolios" -- Many colleges degree programs require students to complete a thesis or other significant, long-range, self-selected project. Some high schools also include a "portfolio" project as a required part of the high school senior experience. EdSource reports that this approach is currently part of the program at Oakland International High School and over 30 other high schools participating in the California Performance Assessment Collaborative. Projects like these are challenging for teachers and administrators because they are so varied and personalized -- how can you grade them fairly and effectively? What expectations and supports can you provide to teachers and students? But I must admit that I am a huge fan, and many teachers are enthusiastic about them, too. An assignment like this stands in sharp contrast to forgettable, workaday academic homework. Most portfolio projects lead students to do academic work that is, if nothing else, at least memorable to them.
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 27, 2017 at 5:12 pm
In 2016 twenty-five states required students to take the SAT or ACT in 11th grade. In 2017 California's state education leaders shut down a waiver request by Long Beach Unified to use the pencil-and-paper SAT in place of the computer-adaptive CAASPP test for high school math and language arts. Among reasons for denying the waiver request: the SAT is non-adaptive (and therefore of no use for assessing low-performing students); it is not accessible to students with disabilities; and it is not aligned with the College and Career Indicator planned for the California State School Dashboard.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 2:38 pm
Interested in learning more about performance assessments? Check the Performance Assessment Resource Bank (PARB), a free online resource for K-12 teachers, administrators, and policy makers.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 22, 2016 at 5:05 pm
Resources for Parents
The California Department of Education has guides to help interpret the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) student score report.
Available in English, Spanish, Armenian (Eastern), Chinese (simplified and traditional), Hmong, Korean, Pilipino (Tagalog), Punjabi, Russian, and Vietnamese.
user avatar
A Patel May 10, 2016 at 9:18 am
Perhaps its just me but I don't feel that all the questions on a CAASPP test are quite clear. It takes a minute or 2 just determine what is asked and addition time to solve and execute the problem. Will students grade 3-5 be allowed to have paper and pencil during testing to work out the problem. How many actually questions are there in an average test for Grade 3-5? What if the child is prone to wrist pain? Using a mouse to answer every single question just doesn't seem feasible if there are over 20 questions on the test.
user avatar
Roxana Marachi September 15, 2015 at 3:47 pm
Please see the following Open Letter to the CA State Board of Education on Release of [False] SBAC Scores:
If EdCamp colleagues or anyone else may have compelling responses to the 10 Critical Questions about Computerized Assessments and SmarterBalanced Test Scores, please share:
The Critical Questions have yet to be answered by the CDE or SmarterBalanced and are important for all in the education community to be asking. The marketing around the tests has been impressive, but unfortunately there are serious structural barriers that don't allow for meaningful interpretation of the [invalid] scores. Feedback on the 10 Critical questions and specific points in the Open Letter are welcomed.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 February 17, 2015 at 4:18 pm
The High School Exit Exam may be on its way out. Legislation has been introduced to suspend it:
SB-172 Pupil testing: high school exit examination: suspension.
This bill would suspend the administration of the high school exit examination and would remove the high school exit examination as a condition of receiving a diploma of graduation or a condition of graduation from high school for each pupil completing grade 12, for the 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19 school years.
You can track this legislation here:
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