Teachers, administrators and parents wondering about the status of California’s annual standardized tests can expect to get clarity this week.
On Thursday, the State Board of Education will vote on whether to revise and shorten the state’s annual standardized Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts.
“We want to ensure we are providing flexibility and options to districts in an ever-evolving environment right now,” said Rachael Maves, deputy superintendent of instruction and measurement for the California Department of Education. “We are coming off a year of very little data, and I feel hopeful that we are starting down the path of collecting some.”
Last March, in the middle of California’s standardized testing window, schools across California and the nation had to close their buildings and pivot to distance learning to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. The U.S. Department of Education at that time allowed states to apply for a waiver in order to skip statewide standardized testing, which is required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
Even though the majority of California students are still participating in distance learning, federal education officials said in September that states are expected to resume standardized testing this spring in order to measure and respond to learning loss during the pandemic.
In lieu of a federal waiver, California education officials are proposing shortening the exams students in grades third-eighth and 11th are required to take in math and English language arts. By reducing the number of test items, officials hope to make strategies, such as staggering students in-person or taking tests online more manageable, as schools across the state navigate distance learning and reopening campuses.
Shorter time period for tests
Across all grade levels, the length of this year’s standardized tests would be cut nearly in half if the revised version is approved by the state board on Thursday. Typically, the tests take about seven to eight hours in total for students to complete, but this year it should take closer to three to four hours.
The Smarter Balanced assessments are aligned to the Common Core academic standards in math and English language arts, which California adopted in 2010. All the standards will continue to be tested in the short-form exams, so that it can be comparable to previous years, Maves said, but duplicate questions that covered the same standards were removed by the testing provider, Educational Testing Service.
This school year’s testing period, which runs from January to July 2021, is already stacked with more variables than before. Currently, students across the state are learning either by using paper packets sent by their teachers or via online learning from home, while others are back on campus with their teachers. And some students lacking internet or stable housing have been missing from distance learning altogether.
Come spring, school districts will decide locally whether they are able to safely offer the exams in-person or have students take them from home.
So far, there has been no uniform effort in California to measure learning loss during the pandemic, and advocates of the revised test say standardized data is crucial to address gaps in academic opportunities and outcomes that have likely been exacerbated by school closures.
“Right now, there are a plethora of instruction models being used; it’s a natural experiment. and we don’t know what the outcome will be,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Education Trust-West. “I’m concerned we don’t have any information at all about which students are learning what. Having some kind of summative assessment is really important for that.”
Standardized testing criticism
Standardized testing has faced pushback since long before the pandemic. Carl Cohn, a professor emeritus in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University and former superintendent at San Diego Unified, said a waiver for the tests would be reasonable this year with so many heightened concerns around student health and safety. But, he supports the idea of shortening the exams without a waiver option.
“It seems really smart to deemphasize standardized testing during these extraordinary circumstances,” said Cohn. “It’s important to get at the issues of opportunity to learn and where resources should go to support kids who have been left behind by the pandemic.”
Groups, such as the California Teachers Association, meanwhile are urging California leaders to pursue a waiver as the state continues to grapple with its coronavirus response.
“Given widespread inequities in student access to technology and the internet, as well as concerns about the validity and comparability of any data gathered from statewide summative testing administered remotely and taken under unknown and uncontrollable conditions, conducting state standardized testing in the spring 2021 would be detrimental to students and of limited use to teachers, schools and school districts,” E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, said in a letter sent this week to the State Board of Education.
“Additional flexibility through the federal waiver process would have been welcome,” said Troy Flint, chief information officer for the California School Boards Association. “In the absence of that, a short-form test is probably the best of the remaining options.”
The California Department of Education is hosting a series of workshops and Q&A sessions in December and January to prepare for the new assessments and administration.
States such as Louisiana and Rhode Island require school districts to assess student learning needs and develop an intervention plan within their pandemic response. California, where school districts operate under local control, has provided guidance and funding for schools to address learning loss, but experts say recommendations alone may not prompt action.
“It’s an opportune time for states to ask districts what their intervention strategies are and if they are linked to research and evidence-based practices, but we aren’t seeing a lot of that in district reopening plans,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at Washington University, which has been researching how schools are responding to the coronavirus pandemic and learning loss. “The most important thing California could do right now is zero in on crisp, clear, meaningful data.”
Another area of concern is how the results will be used and communicated with families. A statewide poll of California parents this fall by the Education Trust-West found that 67% of parents want information from state tests on how their child is meeting grade-level expectations.
Laura Jimenez, director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, said states should not tie harsh consequences to standardized testing.
“No matter how they are administered, it may not make sense to use that data in the traditional ways we have used them for ratings and to identify schools,” Jimenez said. “We just don’t know yet how reliable the results will be.”
Jimenez and others suggested that the state use the data to better target which schools need additional support and resources, and give parents a clear snapshot of how their student is doing. She also hopes that the difficult testing season ahead could carve a path for changes to standardized testing systems that have long guided education in California.
She would like to see more high-quality assessments that teachers can use to directly inform their instruction used alongside summative tests, and deemphasize rating and punishing low-performing schools.
“The conversation around testing is far too heavily weighted on the annual summative tests, which don’t drive real-time teaching and learning,” Jimenez said. “We need high-quality assessments that teachers can give and use to inform their teaching.”