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Why the state plans to revamp its student testing

By Theresa Harrington
Saturday, January 12th, 2013 at 12:10 pm in California Department of Education.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recommended a huge overhaul in school testing on Tuesday, but it is up to the governor and legislators to adopt, modify or implement his proposal. Here is the rationale for the sweeping changes, as laid out in Torlakson’s letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature:

“While what we test, how we test, who we test, when we test, and why we test all continue to be subjects of debate, this much is clear: California’s system of student assessment has proved to be a powerful tool for improving school accountability and achievement.

When the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program began more than a decade ago, only one student in three scored proficient or higher. Today, roughly 900,000 more students are reaching the goals we have set for them now than when the STAR Program began.

As significant as this progress is, the time has come to remake our state’s assessment system. As we do, we must set our sights on a new, more ambitious goal — creating a system that fosters high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom.

The first step in this process is to align our assessments to the new Common Core State Standards, which provide a practical way to prepare our students for the challenges of a constantly changing world, equipping them with the real-world skills they need for college and career.

Just as the skills we want our students to master have changed, so too must our tests. The ability to engage in critical thinking and solve complex problems cannot be reliably assessed with the kinds of multiple-choice tests that are the centerpiece of our current system.

The Common Core State Standards ask students to acquire deeper knowledge of the subjects they study and be able to perform more complex tasks using what they have learned. It is critical that we have assessments that measure their progress toward these goals.

But perhaps even more important, I believe this work provides us with the opportunity to develop new assessments that serve as models for the kind of high-quality teaching and learning necessary for a world-class education.

The concept is simple but powerful: if our assessments require students to use problem solving and critical thinking skills to perform well, those same skills are much more likely to be taught in our classrooms day in and day out. The goals we set for our assessment system have profound implications for our students and our schools.

Tests that are scientifically valid and reliable for one purpose cannot necessarily be easily and reliably adapted to another. Creating a system focused principally on fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills likely means our students will initially find them more difficult. Although they rely less heavily on memorizing specific information than our current assessments, they will require deeper understanding of how to access and apply knowledge and skills to real-world tasks and problems.

Trade-offs are inevitable in this process. Just as it takes a student longer to write an essay than to choose A, B, C, or D on a multiple-choice answer sheet, designing, administering, and scoring these more complex assessments will take more time, and, inevitably, more money. However, the investment in this form of assessment is an investment in the quality of teaching and learning as well, so the costs are balanced by significant benefits.

There are other concerns as well. After all, testing and learning are not one and the same. We must always be mindful that time spent testing generally comes at the expense of time our students would otherwise have spent gaining the very knowledge and skills that are the goal of education.

It is noteworthy that many of the countries leading the world in achievement place little or no emphasis on standardized testing. Where they do test, they use more open-minded measures, sparingly and strategically, and often sample students rather than testing every child. In the absence of current federal requirements, these recommendations offered in this report would no doubt be substantially different.

Indeed, the clear failure of No Child Left Behind to meet its objectives should long ago have spurred federal policymakers to re-examine their requirements that every student be tested in English-language arts and mathematics nearly every year. In the absence of federal action, these recommendations strike a balance — continuing to provide an individual student score each year in the grades and subjects required by federal mandates while providing more thoughtful and flexible alternatives for students in other grades and subjects.

There are many factors to consider, especially in California, which serves such a vast and diverse set of students. It is vital that we address the needs of all students, including English learners and students with special needs, from the outset of this effort.

For this reason, the California Department of Education undertook an extensive process of engagement with education stakeholders and the public in developing these recommendations. I trust you will find their input, which is summarized in the accompanying report, as useful as I did. My staff and I look forward to working with you in considering these recommendations during the upcoming session.”

Here is the link to Torlakson’s report, called “Recommendations for Transitioning California to a Future Assessment System”:

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