Nan Austin

No-bubble tests begin, but reality check is third-grade reading

State testing has returned; accountability has not. The most recent read on how well schools are doing will remain the 2013 bubble test – until at least the fall of 2016.

The 12-week testing window for the computer-adapted state assessment started March 10, two-thirds of the way through the school year. Most districts will pick a few weeks within that time frame for their students to test.

The wider window gives schools with limited technology time to spread out over a week or so the seven-plus hours each class will need in the computer lab to complete the English and math tests. California and 20 other states are taking the high-tech Smarter Balanced test.

Twelve other Common Core-aligned states and Washington, D.C., will take the pencil and paper test of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. A furor has arisen over monitoring of student social media by Pearson PLC, the company behind the PARCC.

“Pearson is contractually required by states to monitor public conversations on social media to ensure that no assessment information (text, photos, etc.) that is secure and not public is improperly disclosed,” notes the company website. The practice came to light after a New Jersey student posted a test question on Twitter and the company contacted the student’s school, according to the New York Times blog Bits. The American Federation of Teachers is demanding the company halt the practice.

It is the second year of testing for many California kids, who got a sneak peek at what the tests were like while the company field-tested its questions. Those scores did not count at all. This year’s scores will be reported to parents and schools, but state-compiled measures of school achievement will not be released.

In part, this is to avoid unfair comparisons to the bubble test scores, less-challenging multiple-choice tests of earlier standards. But I suspect the powers that be felt compelled to blunt the pain of what is widely expected to be a deep drop in scores this first year.

Just changing the testing method so radically will throw off scores. Add to it the all-at-once jump across all grades to the new standards and new teaching strategies implemented in California, and students were bound to stumble before catching their stride.

The California Department of Education release seems to tacitly acknowledge this. “Based on trial runs of some test questions in California and other states, many if not most students will need to make significant progress to reach the standards set for math and (English) that accompany college and career readiness,” it notes.

“If we miss the boat at that critical juncture, it really is difficult for them to succeed,” said moderator Marian Kaanon of the Stanislaus Community Foundation. Poor readers in third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. For low-income kids, make that 13 times less likely to graduate.

Now consider that 80 percent of low-income children in Stanislaus County end third grade still struggling to read. Since low-income children make up two-thirds of Stanislaus students, that 80 percent looms large when looking at future economic growth.

Five schools have signed on to test solutions and run the numbers to figure out what works: Chrysler Elementary in northwest Modesto, Stanislaus Union School District; Burbank Elementary in Modesto City Schools; Sylvan Elementary in northeast Modesto, Sylvan Union School District; Las Palmas Elementary in Patterson Unified School District; and Moon Elementary in Waterford Unified School District.

First, they will measure how ready students are when they start school.

Second, they will work to improve early-grade attendance. Those critical early years, paradoxically, are the years more kids miss the most days. Many parents still think of kindergarten as naps and milk-and-cookies time, but that is the year kids learn to read. Miss that, and they may never catch up.

Third, the schools will try to keep kids learning and fed through the summer, when low-income kids typically lose about two months’ worth of work. Last summer, Chrysler kept its school library and a computer lab open for families.

The county has a long, hard slog ahead to reverse a history of low achievement. But this effort has built wide support. It is hope in action.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.