California should delay Common Core tests for at least 2 years

Doug McRaeSince June 2011 when California joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the target date for implementation of computer-adaptive Common Core tests has been spring 2015. With that date now fast approaching, are California schools ready?
My answer is “no.” In my view, the earliest date for valid, reliable, comparable, fair scores from a computerized Common Core statewide testing program will be spring 2017, or possibly even spring 2018.
The fundamentals
There are two fundamental requirements that I believe must be met before California implements Common Core computerized statewide assessments:
Common core instruction must be be implemented for all students the entire school year before tests are implemented in the spring.
Technology, including human support, needs to be available for all schools during a relatively short window (say 4-5 weeks) when statewide tests will be administered.
Will Common Core instruction be implemented by 2014-15? The answer in most districts is clear: No. Instructional materials for math were approved by the State Board of Education January 2014, and it’s likely that many local districts will need upwards of two years to conduct local adoptions and teacher professional development for the specific materials they adopt. Instructional materials for English Language Arts/English Language Development standards are not scheduled for approval by the State Board until November 2015, with local district adoptions and professional development to follow.
The earliest school year for full Common Core instruction in math will be 2015-16 with statewide assessments in spring 2016. The earliest year for full instruction in Common Core standards for English language arts will be 2016-17 with statewide assessments in spring 2017. Dave Gordon, Sacramento County Superintendent, perhaps said it best in a Sacramento Bee article in mid-February on the relationship between instruction and assessments. Until schools are teaching Common Core in all of their classrooms, Gordon said, “it wouldn’t be fair to test students on skills they haven’t been taught.”
It is true that some schools in California will not wait for the State Board’s adoption of instructional materials before implementing Common Core instruction. However, there is scant evidence this will be the case for the majority of schools in California (see my testimony at the May 7 State Board of Education meeting, here and here).
For technology, including personnel support for technology, the 2014 Smarter Balanced field tests appear to be providing encouraging news although a recent report in the Los Angeles Times on Los Angeles Unified’s field test experiences are discouraging. Additional devices and support are still needed at the local district level, but with short field test administration times, local districts seem to have handled the field test load this spring. At the state level, it appears California has diverted dollars for assessment vendors to upgrade our K-12 high speed network, which provides the main connection to the Internet for many county offices of education and school districts, and the CALPADS data system. These technology strategies have provided plenty of server power to handle peak loads during the field testing window. A more nuanced technology question is whether technology will compromise students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge of the material being tested. That is ultimately a question that can only be answered by studies comparing how the students perform on the same computer-administered and paper-and-pencil tests. However, the results won’t be available until at least late 2015 since full Smarter Balanced tests will not be administered until spring 2015.
A set of school visits I conducted recently suggested that students’ ability to use computer technology does affect their ability to demonstrate achievement, especially at schools with high percentages of low income students and English Learners (see my assessment, which I presented to the State Board).
Additional factors
Several additional factors should play into final decisions for when to implement new statewide assessments:
Will test administration times unreasonably intrude on instruction time? While the Smarter Balanced consortium estimates test administration times will be 6 to 10 hours per student, in my view, after carefully reviewing the Smarter Balanced plans, there are reasons to believe actual test administration times will approach 10 to 15 hours. We will not know actual test administration times until the final Smarter Balanced tests are administered.
Will costs be reasonable? The governor’s initial budget request suggested Smarter Balanced tests in 2015 will cost $24 per student, but this request appears to be a lowball estimate. In testimony before the Legislature, I estimate the actual costs will likely be $42 per student, translating to tens of millions of additional dollars annually in California.
Is it reasonable to expect that California schools will be ready to administer and students will be prepared to take Common Core assessments by the spring of 2015?  For our 1997 standards, the first assessments were implemented in 2003, a 6-year time frame. While Common Core standards were adopted in 2010, fiscal conditions prevented initial implementation activities for Common Core instruction until 2012. By contrast, implementing Common Core computer-adaptive tests to measure Common Core instruction with a 3-year timeline is warp speed, a very dubious proposition.
If California did decide to delay implementation of Common Core computerized assessments until spring 2017 or even spring 2018, as I recommend, is there a Plan B to meet federal as well as California statutory requirements for annual assessments? Yes, there is: short paper-and-pencil tests to measure the Common Core can be constructed from the now-mothballed state standardized tests, using only items aligned to the Common Core. These transition tests would maintain achievement trend data from 2003 forward, including data from new computerized Common Core tests when they are implemented, with the exception of a skipped year in 2014. In addition, using existing data from the state tests, we can pre-qualify students for the CAHSEE graduation requirement and eliminate the need to give the high school exit exam to 80 percent of 10th graders, reducing testing time and saving money.
Until districts have implemented Common Core instruction, end of the year tests cannot validly measure how much students can demonstrate what they know. And premature implementation of computerized tests, particularly among low income and English Learner students who have not mastered the new technology, will distort the test results. These and other factors support delaying Smarter Balanced computer-adaptive tests until at least spring 2017, if not spring 2018.

Doug McRae is a retired educational measurement specialist living in Monterey who has served as an educational testing company executive in charge of design and development of K-12 tests widely used across the US, as well as an adviser on the initial design and development of California’s STAR assessment system.
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