As students sit down for second year of new exams, pressure is on to perform

Patrick Semansky/AP

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Last year, when statewide scores on a new set of standardized tests showed that a majority of students didn’t have at least a satisfactory knowledge of the new standards in English and math, educators warned that it was the first year of scores on the new exams and so scores shouldn’t be compared to the previous tests because they’re so different.

Not so this year.

When students across the Southland and California sit down to take the Smarter Balanced exams beginning this week, the pressure will be back on to show improvement over last year's scores. And that pressure is manifesting itself in some of the preparations schools are taking for the tests.

“I hope that we see an upward trend,” said Mike Finn, a resource teacher at Los Angeles’s Marshall High School. “We look at data at all manner of meetings, in small department meetings, in professional learning cadres, as a faculty as a whole."

The tests are linked to new learning standards adopted by California 2010. The new approach emphasizes critical thinking skills, problem solving, and collaborative work with other students. The Smarter Balanced tests are meant to measure how well students are mastering those skills in English and math.

Not every public school student takes the tests. Students in grades 3 through 8 and 11th graders take the tests. Last year that was more than three and a half million students including many students with learning disabilities.

The state has spent billions of dollars in the last five years to help schools improve their computer and wifi technology and teaching skills in order for the tests to be administered smoothly and for students to do well.

California state policy has not linked test results to teacher evaluations, which appears to have helped the state avoid the conflicts between state officials and teachers unions over Common Core-aligned tests that many other states have seen.

Still, improvements or declines seen on this years' tests could have major implications for schools, because the state is facing a fall deadline to create a new system for rating schools and holding them accountable for their performance. It's likely that gains and losses demonstrated in this round of testing will be the first set of scores used to judge schools in the new system.

The looming changes to school accountability have stoked some fears among educators who are concerned that schools develop too narrow a focus on test scores. 

“There’s a sense of dread, because what we’re going to become is an institution that revolves around how efficiently we administer the test,” teacher Finn said. “What I’d rather be connected with is an institution that is involved with how efficiently we educate the students.”

Other educators said that the change to the new exams was helping them focus on improving instructional techniques, and help them know what's working and what's not.

In Rowland Unified School District, director of instructional support Brian Huff said that test score improvements – or lack thereof  – demonstrated on this year's tests will be one factor the district uses to evaluate whether strategies the district is currently using to help at-risk students are working.

"In the past testing was primarily about accountability, assessing student performance on standards, and the shift in the language of the legislation is emphasizing using assessments to improve teaching and learning," Huff said.

Deb Sigman, deputy director of standards, assessment and accountability services for WestEd, a San Francisco-based education think tank who also oversaw testing for a decade at the California Department of Education, said that in an ideal world, the new test scores will both drive improvements in teaching and also hold schools accountable for improving student performance.

“We’re in the business of improving, and schools are in the business of making sure students learn and that we improve learning for all students,” Sigman said. 

But Sigman also warned the public and educators not to judge schools based only on the outcome of the Smarter Balanced tests.

“As long as this assessment and the results that come from it are used with a variety of other indicators then I think this is a great piece of information,” she said.