California’s Student Testing the Next Battleground

I have been so preoccupied with writing columns on the local war between charter and traditional public schools that I have unwittingly neglected another contentious public battle. The standards for testing in California’s public schools are changing, and the looming fight could be as partisan and ugly as the roll out of the Affordable Care Act.

Out of my 234 columns for San Jose Inside, only a few have referenced Common Core State Standards and the next generation of assessments. One of my readers, John M., chastised me for not giving more attention to the standards in a recent email. Sorry, John. I intend to make up for it.

The alphabet soup of federal and state accountability measures will be no more. We can forget about the API (Academic Performance Index), AYP, (Adequate Yearly Progress), CSTs (California Standards Tests), and individual student scores from FBB (Far Below Basic) to Advanced, on a five-scale measure. The U.S. Department of Education will still demand results-oriented accountability next year, but the California Board of Education refused to ask schools and teachers to field test a new assessment while being accountable for the old one.

This coming spring there will be a field test for the next generation of assessments called Smarter Balanced. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is developing what it says are “valid, reliable, and fair next-generation assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The package of tests will include summative (end of year) assessments for accountability and interim assessments for instructional use.”

State Board President Michael Kirst, at a meeting held last week at San Jose State University, said there is no agreement with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about California’s refusal to give reportable results for students and schools in 2014. In fact, Dr. Kirst implied, the negotiations with the federal government are quite contentious.

Californians who have children in schools or anticipate soon having kids often cling to school and district performances, based on the old CSTs. The results make for front-page stories and shape educational discourse at school board meetings, faculty meetings and soccer games from Eureka to San Diego. Good school scores—above the state goal of 800 API—increase the value of homes, while those scoring below 800 see property values decrease.

For the most part, the public—and realtors—paid attention to the individual student and school scores in English/language arts and mathematics. California’s state tests have been skewed because of higher expectations than some states, which developed tests on federal mandates that were not as academically robust.

The old tests were all No. 2 pencil, fill-in-the-bubble tests. The next generation of assessments will be driven by computer adaptive testing technologies. They will also branch higher and lower for individual student skill sets by subject. This is excellent progress for assessments.

As a principal, when I walked around my schools on testing days—and there were many at the middle-school level—I observed students who were depressed about their lack of knowledge. Some were upset at having to fill out random bubble dots, feeling it was beneath their intellect. According to the new Smarter Balanced Assessments, these issues should occur far less than in the old model.

The new assessment will be a deeper test, more connected to real world problem solving. The test will include more writing and be applicable to college readiness. But there are a few red flags.

The California Republican Party voted last month to denounce Common Core. The party’s resolution (F2013-2) wants to eliminate Common Core Educational Policies. Additionally, the assessment in its highest form depends on quality technology, and broadband access and equipment in California’s public schools is not up to par.

I hope that some of Silicon Valley’s deep pocketed corporations can help address this problem for local districts that lack the necessary technology, just one year before we begin testing with Smarter Balanced assessments.

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 and can be found weekly on San Jose Inside.

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.


  1. > This coming spring there will be a field test for the next generation of assessments called Smarter Balanced.


    I find myself often having difficulty decoding education bureaucrat speak.

    If the new assessments are called “Smarter Balanced”, does that mean the old assessments were “Dumber and Imbalanced” and they just didn’t tell us?

    • I think Smarter Balanced is the stuff I spread on my toast in the morning.
      But seriously. These educrats and their naive belief that education could be fixed if only they could discover the perfect formula. They’ve got pretty much the same grasp of reality as medeival alchemists who believed that, with just the right formula they could transform lead into gold.
      Only difference is the alchemists didn’t have unlimited access to their fellow citizens’ wallets.

  2. I really appreciate the message in this article, and most of what you have to say about the need to address the lack of technology.

    There is absolutely no question that the future of our educational systems will rely on keeping up with technology, and this is true for most entities i.e. healthcare, business, etc.

    My observation as an educator and administrator is that not only is important to have the funds and resources to purchase the necessary technology, but you must have the investment of the administrators of the school to spend time to ensure adequate training of the faculty occurs.  Teachers acquire an added burden to learn how to use and perform differently than they used to on top of finding adequate time to prepare for classes, spend time with students, grade, etc.

    A huge loss of investment can occur if there isn’t time to train the faculty, and faculty performance is really what these standardized exams are measuring.

    My two cents…

  3. The thing that these tests have in common with Obamacare is the blind confidence in technology.  Or it might be the overconfidence of bureaucrats.

    When I read about the “adaptive” testing and that the tests are going to be administered on what I took to be thin-client devices, I definitely had a bad feeling about it.

    Obama really blew it.  The Republicans gave him a gift and he too dumb to realize it.  Once he won his political battle, reality set it.  He and his minions didn’t have a clue what was happening with the implementation of Obamacare.  If he’d have let the Republicans “force” him to delay the rollout, he’d be sitting pretty now.

    When the time comes, and the Republicans want to block rollout of the new testing scheme, I hope someone is smart enough to check to see if the software is really done and really tested before digging in.

  4. Teachers and testing get a lot of attention, but why is it that no one ever mentions textbooks?

    If you’ve ever helped you child with his/her homework you know that textbooks are really, really bad.  Richard Feynman complained about textbooks in his 1985 book.  Textbook companies make a lot of money, and control the review process, much the same way that lobbyists would control the political process without the Brown Act and other laws.  There ought to be a Brown Act for the textbook review process.

    When textbooks are good, teachers don’t have to be as good.  When textbooks are bad, you really need superhuman teachers.  Textbooks are really, really bad.

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