Test scores to be only one factor in measuring school progress

Credit: iStockphoto.comCredit: iStockphoto.comFor months, California education officials have emphasized one message regarding the role that standardized tests will play in the future: Results from the Smarter Balanced tests, which were released last week, should be viewed as but one star, though a bright one, in a universe of metrics measuring student and school progress.
The state is in the middle of building a new accountability system to replace the Academic Performance Index, a three-digit number that has been the main measure used to evaluate how well a school or district is doing. But that effort is still evolving, and with many key decisions by the State Board of Education and the Legislature still to come, officials are clearer about the role that student scores on Smarter Balanced tests won’t play in the new accountability system than on how significant a factor they will play.
Until just two years ago, tests scores on English language arts and math in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11, like the new Smarter Balanced tests aligned to the Common Core standards, were the mainstay of the API. With a composite number between 200 and 1,000, the API ranked a school’s and a district’s performance. Student subgroups within schools and districts also received API numbers.
But last year, as a result of adopting new Common Core standards in English language arts and math, the state stopped giving tests aligned to the previous California academic standards. The state board then suspended the API, with plenty of support from school organizations like the California School Boards Association and the state’s teachers unions. Board members, all of whom are appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, have indicated they don’t intend to recreate the API using the results from Smarter Balanced tests.
Instead, the board wants to create a broad measure of student and school success that takes into account many measures of progress, such as high school graduation rates and student suspension rates, as indicators of progress in middle and elementary school. There may be early education metrics as well. 
“The old notion of a single number doesn’t make sense anymore,” school board member Sue Burr said at the state board meeting earlier this month. “We need to be crystal clear about what the new accountability system encompasses: More multiple measures and a system based on continuous improvement.”
“Standardized tests scores’ role will be smaller – no longer the only thing” to judge student progress or to be the sole grounds for state intervention in low-performing schools, Michael Kirst, president of the state board, said in an interview. He then added quickly, “but they still will be very prominent.”
Even with a diminished role in a state accountability system, test scores on the new standardized tests will have more credence, Kirst said,  because Smarter Balanced tests are tied explicitly to measuring readiness for college and careers – linkages that the API lacked with an arbitrary goal of an 800 score and vague definitions of proficiency, he said.
The scores released last week  in 3rd- through 8th-grade and grade 11 English language arts and math will be base scores, the first indicators of how students preformed on online tests and the extent to which districts have succeeded in introducing the Common Core standards on which Smarter Balanced tests are based. The public should suspend judgment about how well or badly schools are doing, Kirst said, and rather judge schools by the growth in test scores over time.
“We need to be crystal clear about what the new accountability system encompasses: More multiple measures and a system based on continuous improvement,” said State Board of Education member Sue Burr.
Replacing the API, Kirst and other education leaders say, will be a set of indicators similar to a dashboard in a car, with test scores being just one gauge of school success. This would be consistent with the Local Control Funding Formula, the sweeping law passed in 2013 that, among its provisions, ordered the state board to create a new accountability system based on eight priorities. Those priorities fall into three groups, as described in the template for the Local Control and Accountability Plans that districts complete annually. They are:
Parent and student engagement, as measured by chronic absenteeism, suspension rates, graduation rates and other measures;
Conditions of learning, including an equitable distribution of qualified teachers and the implementation of the Common Core, and;
Student outcomes, including success on Advanced Placement courses, rates of reclassifying English language learners as proficient in English, and scores on end-of-year standardized tests.
In the 2013 law, the Legislature charged the state board with refining these and other measurements into a smaller set, called evaluation rubrics, that will set statewide performance goals for key metrics like graduation rates and college and career readiness. Those rubrics would be one element of a new accountability system, informing districts of their progress while determining when and whether county offices of education, the superintendent of public instruction or a new state agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, should intervene in schools and districts that are chronically underperforming.
It’s early yet to say which if any Smarter Balanced test scores, such as 3rd-grade English language arts or 8th-grade math scores – identified as key markers of academic progress – might be included. The research agency WestEd, through a contract with the state board, has created several early versions of brightly colored graphics for potential rubrics (see pages 19-22). These could be a prototype for multiple dashboards, prepared for different audiences, such as parents.
John Affeldt, managing partner for Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization, said that the new Smarter Balanced results shined a light on a large achievement gap. He and the heads of two dozen organizations wrote the state board urging it to adopt explicit targets for improvement on key indicators, including standardized tests.
At the state board meeting earlier this month, new board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon, senior director of K-16 education at the National Council of La Raza, cautioned that test results provide hard data that the public has come to rely on to compare schools and measure the achievement gap. There was value in the simplicity of the API, she said. “How can a parent digest a dashboard in a really clear way?” she asked.
In a letter to the state board, Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that advocates for low-income children, criticized the de-emphasis on test scores in WestEd’s partial draft of the evaluation rubrics. “The ability to master academic English and core content in every grade is what parents, higher education segments, and employers all expect from K-12 public schools. The recommended accountability system ignores nearly all the objective summative data on basic educational outcomes.”
Kirst said in an interview it is premature to draw that conclusion.
 Tension over how tests are used
Standardized tests can serve several purposes. One is accountability: They provide valid data for comparing schools on common academic standards, shining a light on disparities, giving parents and the public one indicator of whether kids are learning and schools are meeting expectations. Another is to provide vital information to teachers and parents on how to improve instruction.
During the past decade under the federal No Child Left Behind law and the state API, the attention was clearly on holding schools accountable for getting results. For the U.S. Department of Education, scores were the primary measure of achievement and the basis for sanctioning low-performing schools. Schools were under pressure to reach NCLB’s escalating proficiency targets and attain an API score of 800 that the state had set as a target for all schools.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Kirst, Burr and other state board members view the detailed information from Smarter Balanced tests of how students performed as an opportunity to shift the emphasis to improving classroom instruction. And improvement, not punishment, should be the goal of an accountability system, they say.
The state’s previous test program, known as Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, reported student and school scores within five bands of achievement, ranging from “far below basic” through “advanced.” Too much attention was focused on reaching a single score designating proficiency, Burr said.
By contrast, school and individual student results on Smarter Balanced tests in English language arts and math will be reported as single points on a 1,000-point scale divided into four newly named achievement bands, ranging from “standard not met” to “standard exceeded.” The focus, Burr and others said, should be on students and schools showing growth in scores over time, not only from one level to the next but within levels.
Additional Smarter Balanced tests
Along with end-of-year tests, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the organization of 18 states that developed the tests, also provides interim tests that districts and teachers can give and score themselves over the course of the school year to learn how well students are learning material aligned with the Common Core. The interim tests are similar in structure to the end-of-year tests.
Smarter Balanced was late in introducing the interim tests last year, so that many schools did not have an opportunity to use them. But the consortium now has three interim tests ready, along with shorter modules that will measure how students are doing within specific subject areas. State Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley said that already this school year, districts have administered 25,000 to 30,000 interim tests.
Teachers can further refine their teaching with “formative assessments,” which are shorter classroom exercises or projects that give teachers an indication of how well students are doing with specific Common Core standards or broader problem-solving skills. Most teachers have access to them through Smarter Balanced’s Digital Library, which went online last year.
As a governing member of the Smarter Balanced consortium, California has pushed hard for the interim and formative assessments. Tony Alpert, the executive director of Smarter Balanced, told the state board that detailed information from the interim and formative assessments will be more useful to teachers in diagnosing student progress than the end-of-year or “summative” Smarter Balanced tests. “Summative tests are great for helping to identify questions like, ‘How big is the achievement gap? Have I closed it? If not, why?’ It’s not great for providing the answers,” he said.
But board member Patricia Rucker, a former teacher who’s now a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, cautioned that the board will have its work cut out to change parents’ and the public’s perceptions. They’re used to seeing one number summarizing how well their school and district did compared with others. Until the board changes the conversation with growth comparisons and multiple measures, parents will focus on one score, and “it will remain the weight in the room,” Rucker said. “It is magical. It is power.”
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