This is another story in KPCC's ongoing series, Classroom Core, that takes a close look at how the Common Core teaching standards are playing out in schools in Southern California.
Redondo Beach seventh-grader Xan Wesley is very confident he did well on the so-called Smarter Balanced tests given to students statewide starting this past spring.
He's one of over three million California public school students who took the new assessments, mostly using computers, tablets and other digital devices. If taking the tests online wasn't challenging enough, the assessments measured how well students met new academic standards in English language arts and math known as the Common Core.
The massive effort to assess the students in grades three through eight and eleven using the new standardized tests is practically over. Districts have until the end of their school year to complete the tests. For many, they're just waiting for the results.
Xan wasn't fazed by the digital tests, he said.
“We’ve already been using the Chromebooks for two years, and so the tests, the way it was formatted, was really easy to understand…,” he said. He liked that he could take notes on the passages he read so he could refer to them later when questions arose about the content.
Xan’s mother, Laura, says the math and English tests were totally different from previous multiple choice tests her son took. That makes her a little worried about how he did.
“If this year’s test results weren’t good, although Xan has tested well all these years, and all of a sudden maybe he doesn’t this year, would that impact him getting into honors or AP classes?” she wonders.
Ashley Pedroza, head of testing at the Orange Unified School District, said lots of parents in her district have asked how the scores will be used.
“We’ve elected as a school district to really take a good, solid look and reflect upon these score reports before deciding to use them for anything,” she said. “It’s anticipated that this year they won’t be used for any sort of classroom placements, which is parents’ sometimes number one concern.”
California Department of Education spokeswoman Pam Slater said it’s up to each of the state’s 1,028 school districts to decide how to use the test scores. The state has put on hold any school penalties or rewards for standardized tests scores while students get used to taking the assessments.
Tests results are scheduled to be mailed to parents in about two months; they will be in a report format (see samples below), describing if a student exceeded, met, nearly met or did not meet standards in English language arts and math.
Educators expect that the scores will be low because everything about the test is new. But that shouldn’t discourage parents, said Michelle Center, lead Smarter Balanced test administrator with the California Department of Education.
“They should think about this score in relationship to a child’s grades, a child’s homework, any parent-teacher conference information they’ve had with their teacher,” she said. “And so they should really think about it as one additional piece of information.”
Because there’s so much more that makes up a child’s education, she said the test results should be used to start a discussion about California’s new learning standards.
The Common Core standards were designed to develop such student skills as problem-solving and critical thinking, competencies needed in college and an increasingly competitive job market.
But controversy has surrounded the implementation of Common Core teaching in the classroom and the rollout of the tests, variously called Smarter Balanced, California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress and Common Core-aligned.
Unlike in other states, the number of California parents pulling out of the test has not been massive, though at a recent gathering of parents at KPCC, some expressed concerns about both Common Core lessons and the exams.
Mixed bag on technical problems
Xan said he had no problems with connecting to Wi-Fi and logging on with passwords to the testing website, as some students reported they did.
The California Department of Education said statewide data isn’t available yet on the number of technical problems encountered this year. But at Los Angeles Unified, there were fewer tech issues than expected, according to Cynthia Lim, the district’s head of data and accountability.
She said the umbrella organization that administered the test online worked out many of the bugs from last year’s pilot test.
“Schools reported fewer instances of being kicked off the system, connectivity was better. I think schools practiced more so schools reported being better prepared for this test," she said.
In an update on the testing, California Department of Education said last week that over 2.5 million students completed the assessments in English and roughly the same number in math.
Parents should keep in mind that this first-year test scores set down a baseline for their children. Their progress won't be known until 2016 when the year-to-year scores can be compared.