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It has become somewhat unfashionable to focus on standardized test scores. (OK, it has become very unfashionable.)
It is important to acknowledge how extraordinarily successful these tests have been.
Standardized tests quickly measure students’ knowledge and skills in ways that allow for comparisons and support decisions.
Certain exams have been shown to be powerfully connected to economic success. If you improve student learning in ways that boost their scores, over time, the economy grows. That’s a pretty powerful connection. Students and parents obsess over scores on SAT and ACT tests because they are so powerfully connected to college access, and thus to job choices.
Because testing often works as a way of measuring skills, its history extends back to pharaohs, 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, standardized tests have been used as a tool for identifying the best-prepared candidates for jobs and opportunities -- and for efficiently "weeding out" the rest. In the last few decades, however, the purpose of testing has broadened. Among other things, test results serve as diagnostic tools 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 battery of standardized tests has changed over time. 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. These were classic one-size-fits-all fill-in-the-bubble tests based on California's state standards.
In 2014, the state dropped the CST and transitioned to new tests based on the Common Core standards. The new tests, collectively known as the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP), are similar to those used in other states that have joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). The CAASPP tests are administered on computers, and they adapt to the skills of each test-taker in order to take less time to determine a score.
The CAASPP system of tests includes tests in English and Math as well as the California Science Test (CAST), which debuted in 2017.
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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.
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.
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.
California's "Smarter Balanced" tests, the CAASPP, are administered in grades 3-8 and 11
California's state assessments are delivered in English and math for grades 3 to 8 and for 11th grade. Students and their parents receive reports that show growth in a student's score from year to year. The reports 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.
Numerous resources can help understand these reports:
The CAASPP tests are 'adaptive.' Administered online, they present each student with questions of varying difficulty to assess their level in as few questions as possible.
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.
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).
Critics such as education commentator Diane Ravitch argue that standardized tests take too much time and lead schools to focus too 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.
Annual testing for all students is a key priority of many civil rights organizations. By requiring universal participation, these tests reinforce the idea that education has to work for all students. Universal participation also reduces the temptation for schools to omit the scores of students that are less prepared.
It is legal for parents to "opt out" of California's state-administered tests. Fortunately, very few do so. Access to some federal funding is contingent on the participation of at least 95% of students.
Public support for annual testing remains strong and broad. In surveys, about two-thirds of respondents support annual testing. About half of teachers support it, too. In response to the criticism that testing has focused only on math and English, California added assessments in science and undertook new changes in standards for the visual, performing and media arts.
For many years, California required high school students to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) to qualify for a diploma. A one-size-fits-all bubble test, CAHSEE was very easy for most students. Still, for some it was the one thing that held them back from graduating. In 2015, the exam was suspended, and in 2017 it was abandoned for good.
The 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 this effect was outweighed by its unintended role as a catalyst for students to give up on high school entirely.
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 provide colleges with evidence of students' readiness for college-level work without taking remedial courses. (For more, see Lesson 9.4.)
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.
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.
Standardized tests aren't the only thing that matter, of course. Most of the work that students do in class or as homework is assigned and graded by a teacher. How do teachers express what counts, and how do they decide on grades?
A rubric is a tool that teachers use to explain what they expect from students when they make an assignment. Rubrics are usually organized into columns that describe what counts. For example, a report might be worth 100 points total: up to 50 points for the quality of the research, 30 for the quality of the writing and 20 for the quality of the presentation. The rows of the rubric describe expectations for different levels of quality -- for example what sort of research is most important, and what length should the paper be?
Most teachers create rubrics in a word processing program, distributing them to students on paper or as PDF documents. Online rubric tools exist, too, some of them not entirely terrible. Creating a good rubric is not easy; it requires significant forethought to clearly explain what you expect from students. Teachers: if you have a favorite tool, please leave a comment.
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.
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
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