Space X and the Final Frontier of Standardized Tests

SpaceX—Elon Musk’s pet space exploration project—has tried and failed twice now to land a spent rocket on an ocean barge and reuse it to save billions of dollars over time. Too many obstacles came into play, mostly weather and speed of descent. Still, I have no doubt that Space X will soon achieve what many thought impossible a few years ago.

By the same logic, we should not be too upset this spring when the Smarter Balanced Assessment System (SBAC) crashes under its own weight. It’s near impossible to accomplish an extraordinary revamp of the old assessment and accountability program, especially in a monolithic educational system that changes ever so slowly.

There’s a useful axiom when discussing the Common Core State Standards: “We teach what we assess.” The former system, known as Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), was considered ineffective in assessing students’ critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. That said, almost everyone interpreted meaning for the API. Teachers knew how to prepare students for the summary assessment by filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. That’s not the case with SBAC—at least, not this year.

The goal for the 43-plus states that have approved Common Core is preparing students with the cognitive skills needed for success in college and career. Even though California had what most experts believed to be high standards for English-language arts and mathematics in the old accountability system, the Common Core actually moves us in the right direction. Common Core will ensure 21st century learning outcomes for all our students, including problem solving and writing.

In a very limited time, the Smart Balanced Assessment Consortium has developed formative tests that gauge how students learn. They also help teachers diagnose what each student needs to master the curriculum.

In addition, this consortium has developed the end-of-term tests scheduled for the spring. It also created interim assessments to show teachers how well their students are mastering Common Core concepts. Unfortunately, the interim tests were just released a few weeks ago, instead of this past fall, as originally planned.

Though the stakes aren’t meant to be high, many local educators are losing sleep over where this all goes in the coming months. We still have a host of questions and few definitive answers. It’s a work in progress.

I have asked the Santa Clara County Office of Education to post a FAQ page on our website, to give the public information as it becomes available. There are legitimate concerns from a myriad sources about these new assessments. Here are some:

  • The digital format of the assessments is somewhat problematic for schools lacking infrastructure for computer assessments.
  • Some students have yet to receive proper typing and keyboard skills.
  • How scores will be reported on a comparison basis among schools within a district, among districts around the county and state, as well as scores disaggregated for race, gender and ethnicity.
  • Scoring written tests in a digital format has the potential to be embarrassing for some schools and districts that currently perform at a high level.
  • How real estate agents will interpret the new data, considering that it’s the first of its kind and property values are often linked to school/district test scores.

Like SpaceX, the eventual results will be worth the trial and error. We need to get our standardized tests right. In the old model, even though API was understood, the process emphasized breadth of knowledge over depth. Common Core and Smarter Balanced aims for results that show deeper understanding in language literacy and math—an important goal going forward.

It’s possible that the continued controversy over Common Core in conservative circles will become a talking point in the 2016 presidential election.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

One Comment

  1. It’s possible that the continued controversy over Common Core in conservative circles will become a talking point in the 2016 presidential election.

    Common Core is No Child Left Behind for Democrats. Once you understand that, everything else makes sense.