Nan Austin

Common Core test results due next month: ‘It’s not going to be pretty’

After a year with no results to, in essence, test the test, this summer there will be numbers and ratings winging their way to parents’ mailboxes.

Student Score Reports for the new, computer adaptive tests come with explanations about testing and a breakdown of where the student scored, how well the student did, and what areas with English or math need work. There is more information, a video and graphic at www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sa/sbacsummative.asp.

The new scores have no relation to scores under the old testing system. First off, the scores go from 200 to 3000, where the old measures stopped at 600 – even the numbers do not line up. More importantly, kids are tested in a fundamentally different way, on different standards, meant to be taught differently.

The upshot of so much change: Lower scores.

“I’m expecting what everyone else is expecting. It’s not going to be pretty. We know that,” said Stanislaus Union Superintendent Britta Skavdahl.

But, the start of state testing under the old system did no better, she reflected, “The first year then was crash and burn, too.”

Kids and schools that did very well under the old fill-in-the-dot multiple-choice tests may or may not fare well on this one. While for some the reverse may be true, statewide far more went down than than went up.

“Our instruction has been spot on,” Skavdahl said, but the state’s foot-dragging in adopting curriculum and the single-year switch to Common Core left teachers as well as students scrambling. Those kids in classes that took the lead, switching a year early, did better, she said.

“You could really see the difference between those that piloted and those who hadn’t,” she said. “Next year will be a much stronger year.”

To understand the change from a kid’s point of view, consider that passing the old multiple-choice tests meant simply knowing the fact being asked.

I asked one teen with top grades if learning the Common Core way was easier or harder. “Oh, it’s a lot harder,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what they want.”

Mulling that answer over, it hit me that she had spent her entire scholastic life being told the answer, then asked the question.

The new way of teaching has some memorization, such as multiplication tables, but as much as possible gives kids practical problems and asks them to figure them out together. That takes a far different set of skills, much more like what someone needs in a supervisor’s post than a factory line job.

How that translates to a difference in testing looks much like the difference between taking a spelling test and answering an essay question. One takes memorizing the list on the drive to school. The other means knowing enough about grammar, spelling and punctuation to pull together a sentence. It’s a lot harder.

The experts have sent warnings to expect low numbers when the results come out for this next generation of testing. California is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC (pronounced S-back), testing system in which computers adapt questions based on how well the student answered the previous question.

“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 literacy that accompany college and career readiness,” notes a California Department of Education statement.

“No one should be discouraged by the scores,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson says in the release.

The department did not answer a Bee request for a percentage of students statewide who opted out of testing, but comparing the number of test takers provided against the general student population, it looks as though it was high. Special education students are the unknown quantity that makes it tough to calculate with any precision.

Colleges have also jumped in with a comment. The National Association of System Heads, the State Higher Education Executive Officer Association, and Higher Ed for Higher Standards released a joint statement Tuesday that acknowledges the scores will look bad the first year.

“Because the assessments have been purposefully pegged to a higher standard than previous state tests – a college- and career-ready standard – we expect the initial scores to be lower than what students, families and educators are used to,” the release says.

“This should not be cause for alarm nor an indictment of our K-12 educators. The tests are simply providing a more accurate assessment of our students’ readiness for the demands of postsecondary life, the need for which is validated by our own remediation numbers and employer surveys,” it concludes.

Roughly half of students heading to two-year colleges need remedial courses that do not count for college credit, the report notes. Colleges have also been criticized for being too eager to put slightly lower students into these courses.

For their part, the higher-education groups said they will be working better to align with high schools and bring down those numbers, but they emphasize that Common Core is the way forward.

“We must not back down if initial results are low,” the statement says. “The new standards and assessments are anchored in what it takes to succeed in college and careers. We owe it to our students to maintain these higher expectations and do what it takes to help them succeed.”

Got that, parents? They’re saying hang in there.

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