Nan Austin

October 10, 2013

What would change in Modesto-area schools if state testing ends?

A year without all the state testing for California students would mean less stress in the spring, as well as no explanation of where a child stands measured against kids statewide.

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Students and educators may be over the moon about a one-year testing reprieve, but if the stars align to end the spring bubble tests, parents may want to see more sunshine on the results of other assessments their students take.

Let’s be clear. Chapter tests, pop quizzes and all the rest still will happen in every classroom. District benchmark tests still will be scrutinized and teachers still will try mightily to bring those struggling students in their classes up to par.

What would not happen are the test prep pep rallies, prizes and promises for extras if testing goes well. No fliers would fly in the spring pleading for parents to make sure kids come to school well fed and well rested every day of those all-important weeks.

In August, fewer principals would shave their heads, fall in a dunk tank or get a pie in the face as a promise kept for higher scores.

But of greater interest for parents in August, no explanation of where your child stands measured against kids statewide would be mailed home, either.

That leaves it to parents to make an extra effort this year to connect with their schools and teachers, making a priority of knowing how it’s going and where they can help. Testing still will happen, even if state testing does not.

The proposal switches out the public scoring of outdated bubble tests for undisclosed results of a field test. The test is being beta tested, in essence. The plan is for schools to give a trial run in some grades to online computer testing that will replace the faded STAR galaxy of assessments in 2014-15, tied to common core standards.

Ceres Unified is field testing the computer model. Ceres dived early into common core teaching. Denair Unified is just getting its feet wet. Modesto City Schools has waded in to just about its bellybutton.

Which students would fare best on STAR questions about the old state standards this year? Probably the ones still studying the old standards. In a twist not lost on educators, the highest scores would likely go to the schools farthest behind the curve.

But the plan to let the STAR go dark takes risks as well. Those test scores showed progress – or lack of – for poor students, English learners, special-needs students and minorities. This year, they were expected to begin tracking the scores of foster children.

Washington has branded California’s plan to end STAR tests and suspend school scores for 2013-14 as mutinous. The Department of Education could cut up to $1.4 billion in education funding, most targeted for the poor children, migrant students and other special populations the state will not be able to show are well-served by its efforts.

That prospect may be what held up Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on Assembly Bill 484 by Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, the bill to time out the tests for this year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson sponsored the bill.

“While this may put California technically and temporarily out of compliance with federal testing mandates, we’re confident we can work with our colleagues in Washington to effectively manage this transition,” Torlakson said.

The whole thing wraps more challenges into a big change already causing ulcers. But teachers deep into common core already say it’s like teaching was before test-prep micromanagement took away all the fun and excitement.

Back to hands-on examples. Back to expecting kids to figure it out. Students will have to to research problems online, and the hope is they will learn to spot misinformation as much as good information. Critical thinking and a healthy skepticism will be essential skills for this next generation.

For why, I need go no further than this week’s emails. Two from the same email address, with no name given, stand out.

Both go to great lengths to sneer at a particular political party, which was misspelled in capital letters throughout. The author gave no reasoning, just shared that children in the neighborhood were starting to understand that members of this party are “a big pile of dog (poop),” and warn job seekers than saying they belong to the wrong party “is like admitting you are a moron.”

Critical thinking? Healthy skepticism of what splatters the Internet? Not here.

If common core can usher in an era of common courtesy, it will be doing far more for our nation than a decade of testing could.

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