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Published in Print: June 13, 2001, as Calif. Considering Assessment Role Reversal

Calif. Considering Assessment Role Reversal

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California lawmakers are pushing through changes in their state assessment program to downplay the standardized tests that have been at the heart of the system for the past four years and elevate the status of standards-based exams.

The bill that sailed through the Senate last week would expand the types and numbers of exams tied directly to the state's academic standards, while decreasing the role of the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. It also would put a new emphasis on end-of-course high school exams for all students—not just those attempting to earn what the state calls a "merit" diploma.

The modifications would have the combined effect of reducing testing time and yielding results that better gauge how well students are learning what the state standards expect of them, state officials say.

"Now that we have our standards in place and our standards-based tests in place, we are updating and refining," said Kerry Mazzoni, California's secretary of education. "We are trying to be smarter about what we're doing."

"It's better, once you can do it, to be testing the kids on the curriculum materials," concurred Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank based at Stanford University, and a member of the board that set academic standards for the state. "It's a better basis for accountability. It's a better basis for making judgments of how children are doing."

North Carolina also took steps last week to cut down on testing time. ("Citing Instructional Time, N.C. Scraps 3 Assessments," June 13, 2001.)

'Flagship of the System'

California uses the Stanford-9 as the core of its Standardized Testing and Reporting Program, or STAR. Students in grades 2-11 take Stanford-9 exams in reading, mathematics, spelling, and language. Ninth through 11th graders take science and social science exams as well.

In addition, the state has created a series of exams to augment the nationally normed test—called the STAR California Standards Tests—in every subject area and at every grade level in which the students take the Stanford-9. The tests are designed to assess progress toward meeting elements of the state's standards that the Stanford-9 doesn't measure.

In most subjects, however, the nationally normed test, which measures how well students stack up against one another, takes more time, and its results count more in the state's ranking of schools.

The Senate bill adopted last week would reverse those roles by giving a shorter form of the Stanford-9 and expanding the scope of the standards-based tests.

"It clearly establishes the standards test as the flagship of the system and the one that will count the most in accountability," said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. "It clearly puts the Stanford-9 in a secondary position."

Kerry Mazzoni

For example, high school students would take an end-of-course exam in the sciences and a shorter version of the Stanford-9 under the new plan. They currently take a general standards-based test and the long version of the Stanford-9.

The changes are a step in the right direction, but probably don't go far enough, says one district testing coordinator. The nationally normed science test wouldn't be necessary because a thorough end-of-course test would cover many of the essential components of the standards, said Lynn Winters, the assistant superintendent for research for the 94,000-student Long Beach schools.

"The science is all over the place," she said. "It's got a lot of skills and general knowledge that you don't need to take science in order to learn."

Ms. Winters said that she welcomed the Senate bill's proposal to eliminate the Stanford-9's version of history and social sciences altogether, in favor of tests tailored to the state standards.

SAT Replacement?

While fine-tuning the K-12 testing program, Senate Bill 233 could also create a new tool for the state's colleges and universities as leaders of the University of California system seek a replacement for the SAT—the customary college-admissions test in the state. ("UC President Pitches Plan To End Use of SAT in Admissions," Feb. 28, 2001.)

SB 233 would alter the Golden State Exams—a series of end-of-course tests given to high school students who want to earn a special seal on their diplomas for passing six of the 13 subject-area tests—to align them with the STAR program.

The STAR subject-matter tests would still be given to all students in grades 2-11, while the Golden State Exams would be taken by students trying to earn the merit-based diploma the program currently offers. The Golden State tests would be shortened so they didn't repeat subject matter covered on the STAR test.

Because the standards-based tests and the Golden State Exams would yeild more data, colleges and universities could make admissions and placement decisions based on the state tests without relying on an outside assessment, Mr. Kirst said. "It's not going to happen immediately, but it moves in that direction," he said.

Clear Skies

SB 233 SB 233 went through the Senate without a vote against it, either in the education committee or on the floor. The bill now goes to the legislature's lower house, the Assembly, where Ms. Mazzoni predicted it would receive the same overwhelming support and be signed by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, by the end of summer.

"The bill is in good shape," said Ms. Mazzoni, a sponsor of the 1997 bill that created the STAR program when she was the chairwoman of the Assembly education committee.

Vol. 20, Issue 40, Pages 17,20

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