Common
Core standards tested by spring

03/06/2014

The implementation of a new set of national educational standards in Marin schools has led teachers to stress informational texts and evidence-based composition in classrooms this year. 

The Common Core standards, newly adopted by 45 states, also bring a new approach to testing. California students will be given draft tests this spring that involve

less multiple-choice questions and more writing, and which adapt in real time to test-takers’ performance. These “field tests” will help inform the official exams that will be administered next year, and their results will not be publicly shared.

At a meeting that drew about 30 people to West Marin School on Tuesday, parents voiced concerns about the new standards and computerized tests, and expressed frustration with their inability to see their children’s test results this year.

“I have kids. I have concerns that my kids are being used as guinea pigs to see what the tests do,” said one mother. “We deserve to see how our kids did on the test.” If the results are poor, or show that the students were stressed by the format, parents deserve to know, she said.

The state legislature’s decision not to report scores to the United States Department of Education has also drawn the ire of the federal government, which has threatened to withhold billions in federal funds—though whether or not it will remains unclear.

The exams formulated around the Common Core standards are significantly different than the state’s previous standardized tests, in which students bubbled in Scantron sheets that were graded by a computer. 

Now, multiple-choice questions might require a student to select two answers at once, and the tests will include written responses. A student might have to make up the ending to a story, for example. So-called performance tasks might ask students to read a passage of text and then click on the phrases that give clues to the meaning of the word “scarred,” for instance, or to pick three sentences that convey a protagonist’s fear. 

The new standards aim to better prepare students for higher education by developing analytical thinking skills. A greater focus is placed on informational texts and explanatory writing as opposed to narratives and stories, said Raquel Rose, the deputy superintendent for the Marin County Office of Education. They also move students away from making persuasive arguments based on their feelings, and instead encourage the use of evidence from texts, which administrators say deepens understanding of educational concepts. 

In math, a previous state test might list some fractions and ask students in to pick which one is closer to the number 1; a new test might ask students to demonstrate the proximity of each by drawing a number line.

Tests will also be adaptive, meaning that if a student answers questions correctly the next query will be more challenging, while wrong answers will lead to easier questions. Through that process, the computer can better gauge what exactly they know about fractions or how well they can comprehend a text.

According to Laura Shain, the principal at Lagunitas School District, adaptive tests are better for students. “It does less harm. It doesn’t demoralize students who are faced with a lot of questions they don’t know how to answer,” she said.

But another parent speaking at Tuesday’s meeting had concerns about the subjectivity inherent in grading a test that had written components. Ms. Rose said there would be grading rubrics, and that hopefully the field tests would allow the state to work out any problems in the system.

One mother worried about children’s lack of familiarity with technology, saying it might cause them to test poorly.

Shoreline Unified School District Superintendent Thomas Stubbs expressed similar concerns, telling the Light that his district needs more computers so that students are prepared for the tests. 

“Of course I’m concerned,” he said. “We should probably have a 1:1 ratio [of students to computers].” He was unsure what the current ratio was.

Ms. Shain said her greatest fear about the tests was whether it would truly evaluate student success or just measure one’s ability to focus on a screen, a difficult feat for some. Her district has a high opt-out rate for testing, and though she imagined some parents might try the exams this year, she expects others to abstain because they object to placing their children in front of a screen.

Adding to the questions posed by parents on Tuesday is a larger controversy that could affect billions in federal funding. Last year state legislators decided they would not offer normal standardized tests this school year because they wanted to use the field tests help create the final version for next year. The state applied for a waiver from the federal government on testing students and reporting results, but the feds denied it, saying California cannot simply skip a year. Sanctions, they said, “could include withholding funds from the state.”

The dispute with the federal government had still not been worked out, Ms. Rose said.