Brown wants fast results, fewer tests

Get CST results before end of school
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Gov. Jerry Brown picked up on a common complaint of teachers, superintendents, and parents in his State of the State address last week: Schools have closed for the summer by the time they get the scores of standardized tests that students took the previous spring. At that point, the results are a lot less useful.

Brown’s call for a quicker turnaround – “I believe it is time to reduce the number of tests and get the results to teachers, principals, and superintendents in weeks, not months” – is doable, according to experts I spoke with. Most states already get their tests back quicker than California, and California can do so, too – if the state is willing to change how it administers and validates its standardized tests. The state could have – and probably should have – taken this step years ago, said Doug McRae, a retired standardized test publisher and occasional TOP-Ed contributor.

In his speech, Brown pointed to one benefit of earlier results: “With timely data, principals and superintendents can better mentor and guide teachers as well as make sound evaluations of their performance.” Given Brown’s skepticism of standardized tests, I was surprised he raised linking them to teacher evaluations. His friends at the California Teachers Assn. must have cringed. But as an analytic tool, teachers do need the CST results before they depart for the year and can think over the summer of the changes they’ll make. Once they return in the fall,  they have next year’s students on their minds.

A quicker turnaround of CST results can also help teachers and schools make wiser placement decisions for students in courses like Algebra I. And it can be helpful to students, too, especially high school juniors taking the Early Assessment Program, the college readiness exam that’s part of the 11th grade English and math CST. Early results can guide them on what to do their senior year. And if, as some suggest, the state starts counting end-of-the-year subject exams toward a student’s grade (either that or stop giving some altogether), then they’ll have to be graded and returned sooner.

Change in testing method

CSTs are administered after 85 percent of the instructional year is over. Since each district sets its own calendar, and some districts on year-round schedules start as early as July, CSTs are taken from February through May in parts of California. The state could administer the tests sooner, after, say, 75 percent of instructional days, says Rachel Perry, director of the Analysis, Measures and Accountability Reporting Division for the state Department of Education. But that would create comparability problems with past years’ results.

The more practical option would be to change the way test results are compared yearly, from a “post-equating” to a “pre-equating” method. Under the current system, the test publisher, Educational Testing Service, waits until after the tests are administered to do a scoring analysis of the new questions that were introduced. The alternative is “pre-equating,” in which new items would be introduced and analyzed as sample items in earlier years. Then the turnaround would take weeks, not months. The public release of statewide CST and individual school results would remain Aug. 15.

McRae said it was probably smart to have been cautious and to have used post-equating in the early years of the CSTs. The state could have switched methods once it had experience under its belt, he said. “There’s no longer a risk.”

Perry said the state could convert to a quicker turnaround by the 2013-14 school year, but this should be done in the context of a larger plan for testing. Brown has also called for fewer standardized tests, and the State Board of Education must decide which tests may be displaced by new assessments connected to the Common Core standards in English language arts and math.

“We need a comprehensive look at the entire system,” said Perry.

14 Comments

  1. I’m curious, any parents out there that have made education decisions for a child based on the CST?  How did you ise it?  How did it work out?
     

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  2. CST is a useful tool when reviewing a kid’s progress in certain math skills, for example. If the tests were used correctly for remediation, the snapshot is helpful. At the school my kids attend, I have analyzed the CSTs, and noticed significant trends in math teaching – - – weak trends I might add. Sadly, the trends are not used by the school to adjust teaching – curriculum, etc. I therefore now supplement a lot more at home so that the school’s weak areas are mitigated. This is totally unfair to the children whose parents do not understand the tests and aren’t able to develop supplementary curriculum. I am currently working very hard to encourage the school board to update textbooks and focus on math. Since teachers can just carry on as they want to without consequence, it’s not a happy task.
    The school is now using CSTs and other testing to focus on weaknesses in Language Arts (especially reading) and this is leading to positive change.  Unfortunately, the school’s internal grading is all over the map, so I use CSTs as consistency – it’s the best I can get.
    My concern is the weakness of the CSTs in Language Arts in elementary and middle school. The reading standard is so low. There needs to be a change there.
    I ignored my oldest son’s CSTs in high school because he took the tests long after he had completed the courses! High school CST administration is  a mess. I don’t see any point in taking a CST test a year after taking the AP! Since the State and AP curricular materials are miles apart, the scores just don’t make sense. Having said that, he always scored high, but they were just not relevant to where he was. I use discretion!

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  3. My kids are only in K, but I plan on opting them out of testing altogether by the time they hit testing age. I’m not completely opposed to standardized testing, but I am opposed to what it is has done to our educational system. I won’t get started as it would take multiple pages to elaborate and I have already done so in a dissertation.

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  4. It may be unpopular to say this, but I think we will need to invest much more MONEY in testing if we want it to get better. We should want that. We spend enormous amounts of TIME on testing today (including both teacher time and student time) but not all that much budget on it. (Has anyone added up the implicit cost of the time students and teachers spend on testing? I bet it would be an impressive number.) At some point computers will find their role in all this. Imagine tests that ask the right questions of EACH student instead of asking the same questions of all students! Imagine tests that invite students to show what they are capable of.  (“EACH” is a common theme in my comments — see http://www.fullcirclefund.org/EACH )
     
    It is also not unreasonable to imagine systems that generate summative statistics in the course of doing the work. The closest well-known model of this approach is Khan Academy.
     
     

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  5. @Jeff, the RTTT grant for a new testing system certainly reaches the goal of spending more money. (I personally think they are probably spending too much money in too little time to get a great result.) There are lofty goals embedded in the plans that I think would be beneficial once and if they are implemented. Of course, the program is useless without more computers, more IT infrastructure, more wiring in buildings, and broadband for everyone, none of which is funded or underway on a large scale.
     
    But, adaptive questions, more complicated answer schemes, instant results back to the teachers, more complex creations – that is all in there, and much of it would be good.
     
    The amount of time spent by administrators just in getting the boxes, dividing the tests, doing the scheduling, and shipping them all back is frankly appalling. It would be nice to have that time back.
     
    As for Paul’s question, I do pay attention to my child’s results and I use it as a checkpoint in where I consider her education to be going. For the most part, she has done very well on the tests, better sometimes than I have expected, but with some particular weaknesses that are not surprising. I pay attention not only to the state’s final label but to the count of missed questions in each category. And I was pleased to learn that my daughter, like her parents, is quite good at math standardized tests.
     
    It’s a data point, and I use it. But if you asked me to choose between this test and the outdoor education science field trip, I’d pick the field trip. I learned as much about her educational progress from that event as from the mailed CST results, and ironically, it cost less.

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  6. California’s primary testing contractor (ETS) would seem to have little incentive to provide quick-turnaround scoring of the tests given that they acquired a leading test-preparation software company (Edusoft) and presumably make a ton of money selling it to districts.
     
    One has to hand it to ETS–they’re very smart and appear to have successfully maneuvered to renew their California testing contract on multiple occasions without a competitive bid process.
     
    On multiple occasions over the past several years, we’ve asked prior members of the State Board of Education to put this contract out to bid and insist on providing formative and diagnostic data as part of the bid specs–to little apparent effect.
     
    Hats off to the Governor for highlighting this one.

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  7. There’s really no excuse for taking months and months to get these computer-scored tests back, other than that they’re trying to spread their work across more of the year. If they could come back in April, teachers could even potentially use them as tools, and address the results, instead of having them feel like pointless distractions from real education.

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  8. The little caveat is the validity of the questions. Frankly I would caution parents to take the data with a grain of salt. Take the test. See the questions. See your score.

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  9. In response to @Paul: I’ll  shock some of you by acknowledging that I’ve made a pretty major education decision based on the results of the CST. Since my kids have both been educated in diverse urban public schools K-12, I’m subject to a constant barrage of messages about how their education is supposedly failing. (Some of those message are general media messages; some are direct and personal; some — from my private-school and suburban friends, relatives and associates — are oblique.)
     
    So I’ve happily kept my kids in their urban public schools and never considered scurrying off to private or the ‘burbs I can see that my kids are fulfilling their potential based on that particular impartial, if flawed, gauge.
     
    My issue is the HIGH STAKES — the sanctions, rewards, punishments, incentives etc. — attached to the tests, not the tests themselves; as well as the ongoing calls from the corporate reform sector for ever-increasing testing.
     
    How did it work out? Well, my kids are far from perfect, but they’re well educated. My son is functioning well so far at a good college (Oberlin), my daughter is a high school senior in the middle of the college application process now. And both are serious jazz/Latin musicians thanks to the arts education that San Francisco schools provide and the rich jazz and Latin music scene in our diverse urban environment.
     
     

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  10. I’m part of a couple whose background means we take testing very seriously.  It’s just not possible for us to not take a result seriously even if our school is telling us the result is not that serious.  We’ve removed one of our children from public school because we did not like the results of the CST.  For financial reasons, our plan is to put him back in public school after a year in private school.  It remains to be seen if our decisions work out well.  I’m guessing that I will never really know the answer to that question.
    We do have some observations having gone through this decision making process.  First of all, No Child Left Behind only applies to a student’s average achievement level.  A student can fall behind in certain areas and that is just fine for NCLB.  Second, schools don’t seem to be able to help parents in the particular sense. We discussed our decision with our school principal and the only truly public school option we had available was to continue with the  status quo.  Our school district does have an independent study program, but that is a home schooling program with some financial support in terms of materials, community, and quality checking.  It’s a nice match for the school district, as it makes money on the arrangement, and parents who need more flexibility due to lifestyle choices.  But we don’t consider that public schooling.  We should mention that we’re using the word schools to mean the schools as they exist now and not what they could become.  Third, no information that we received from the school during the year would lead anyone to predict the outcome on the CST.  So even though most things that happened during the year were good predictors of test results, it’s possible to get some surprises.  Lastly, the current schedule of releasing test scores made the decision making process extremely stressful.  We had 2 weeks to explore all public school and private school options and make a decision.  It is a possibility we would have made a different decision if we had more time.  So we applaud Governor Brown for wanting to help out parents that might find themselves in the situation we confronted.
    We realize that we probably live in some kind of a bubble, because if we couldn’t actually do anything different based on the test results the timeliness of those results wouldn’t matter.  We see giving all parents and schools productive options based on students’ test results as the holy grail of education.
     

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  11. Ironically, one of the reasons I do see some benefit to the CST is that I’ve had friends whose kids attend private schools that don’t administer standardized testing, and they had NO clue where their kids were beyond the word of the school itself. That even applied in the case of highly educated parents — they were utterly in the dark until it was time to take tests for private high school (or, here in SF, Lowell).   If your private school does do standardized testing, obviously that’s another story. I only know anecdotally from friends that one private  school does and another doesn’t,  so I don’t have a full picture. There’s a whole array of situations. If you looked at our extended family, you’d think that public schools produced nerdy and/or very eccentric brainiacs and private schools produced non-bookish kids with charm and highly developed social skills. I’m not sure that charm and highly developed social skills aren’t a greater asset in life than a high SAT score, though, I have to acknowledge.

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  12. I wish that more parents took CST results seriously. If it were up to me, CST results would be returned before the end of the year, and would replace teacher-assigned grades in subjects for which CSTs are offered.
     
    This is not to say that CST questions are perfect, let alone that high-stakes standardized testing is desirable. Since testing is a legal reality, why not do something useful with the results?
     
    Who is lying when there are large, persistent gaps between teacher-assigned grades and CST proficiency rates? Are principals’ unwritten “don’t fail too many” policies reasonable? (In teaching interviews, I used to ask unpleasant questions like, “Well, only 15% of your Algebra I students are proficient, but your Algebra I pass rate must be much higher. Do you want me to practice social promotion?”) Should a school board be able to get away with codifying, in district policy, a minimum numeric grade of 60% for assignments not handed in/not completed [true story]? Why are we afraid — in those classrooms where teachers are doing their job, teaching to the standards, using the instructional techniques prescribed in the frameworks, and relying on adopted curricula — to acknowledge that not every student is genius, or a hard worker?

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  13. I don’t think the CST is comprehensive enough to replace teacher grades. It would be nice to have them reported on the same document as the report card – you could even expect a short teacher narrative about why the scores don’t correlate. (For example, “Suzy earned a C in math because she had many late and incomplete assignments, but she is relatively proficient with the material when she completes it, as shown by her CST scores. I would like to see her improve her follow-through and organization on daily work.” or “Erin earned an A in math after much diligent hard work. Her CST scores do not reflect what I’ve seen on classwork, which may be due to the time pressure or something else about that test. I think she will benefit from more practice with this material to be able to perform easily under stressful situations.”
     

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