The first weeks of the new year used to be a time when California teachers pushed students to cram to learn the right answers for the state's multiple-choice English and math exams.
Now students are taking new, computerized tests that track their problem solving and critical thinking skills – and that's led to a radically different way to prepare students for the tests.
“It’s no longer, ‘hey, we’ve been going through the school year, now it’s time to do, quote unquote, test prep, let’s cram and jam,’” said University of Southern California education researcher Brandon Martinez. “Rather, it’s, ‘if we teach the standards, then the assessment is going to take care of itself because the learning activities are aligned with that.'"
But practice tests are still a big part of teacher preparation. Martinez knows because he’s also a principal at Los Alamitos High School. He said teachers at his school will use practice tests two to four times before the final test in the spring. The practice tests are free and were created by the company that administers the Smarter Balanced tests.
“These shorter, interspersed assessments give teachers immediate feedback that they can now use to guide instruction moving forward,” instead of waiting for test scores to come out in the late summer to find out if a teaching technique worked or not, he said.
But teachers are split on whether the new practice tests are useful.
Tanya La-Mar, who teaches math at Augustus Hawkins High School in Los Angeles, said she won’t be using practice tests.
“It’s more about the experience of figuring out mathematics on their own and the intellectual confidence that you get out of that,” she said. That process will take place during class, using approaches in which the students lead group problem-solving.
This is the second year most California public school students will be taking the new standardized tests. The tests are one part of a multi-billion dollar overhaul of California teaching and testing.
“They’re very important tests because we feel like they are helping to prepare students for the 21st century careers and college,” said California Department of Education Spokesman Bill Ainsworth.
The experimentation with new approaches to teaching and test preparation is happening at a time when state officials have suspended the use of standardized test scores to hold schools accountable for progress.
In the past, test scores were used to score schools on the Academic Performance Index, which was widely used to measure a school’s success. There is no such measure this year, but that’s going to change. The State Board of Education says it will decide this summer on an accountability system in which test scores will be a smaller factor than before.
The experimentation, researcher Martinez said, is not because teachers aren’t being held accountable for scores, it’s because “teachers want to reflect and know how kids are doing in their classrooms and across grade levels or subjects.”
This year statewide, county, school district, and campus test scores will be made public, while scores for individual students will be mailed home.