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Every Student Succeeds Act

What States Can Learn From a Rejected California Push to Streamline Testing

By Evie Blad — October 15, 2019 4 min read
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A recently rejected proposal to streamline standardized tests for California 11th graders has insights for policy makers in other states as they navigate a complicated accountability environment and a public push for less testing.

A coalition of California lawmakers and education groups championed a bill this year that would have allowed school districts to use high school juniors’ scores on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams to meet state testing requirements.

Doing so would allow already college-bound students who already take the ACT or the SAT to take one fewer test by avoiding the state-mandated Smarter Balanced test, those proponents said. And for students who may not have considered college, taking entrance exams at school might show them its possible, they said.

Despite those pitches, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, vetoed Assembly Bill 751—known as the Pathways to College Act—on Sunday. The bill would have required the state’s education superintendent to approve a “nationally recognized high school assessment” that a district could opt to use in place of Smarter Balanced starting in the 2012-22 school year.

In a veto statement, Newsom said the bill’s primary aims of cutting back testing and promoting college access are “laudable goals.” But he fears the use of an entrance exam could “exacerbate the inequities for underrepresented students” because performance on the ACT and SAT often correlates with factors like parental income.

“It is important to remember that over the last several years California has made great strides towards establishing a coherent accountability system,” he said. “Measuring how students throughout the state perform on our state’s assessments, including the grade 11 assessment, provides critical information to students, families, educators, and our state.”

In other words, adding another test to a state’s accountabililty system, approved to meet the requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, may be more complicated than it sounds.

ESSA allows for “locally selected, nationally recognized” assessments.

ESSA, the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind, anticipated proposals like the one Newsom vetoed. A provision in the law allows states to approve an alternative that schools can opt to administer to high school students, instead of the state’s summative assessment.

What kind of tests? The law says any alternative must be an assessment “that is administered in multiple States and is recognized by institutions of higher education in those or other States for the purposes of entrance or placement into courses in postsecondary education or training programs.” (Think ACT, SAT, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate exams.)

But as Education Week wrote in 2018, very few states have taken the feds up on that flexibility, and some have sought to ease testing burdens in other ways.

That’s because states can’t just rubber-stamp new tests. Any changes to the exams they use for accountability are subject to peer review, and they must be prepared to prove they align with their standards, and that they have appropriate accomodations for students with disabilities and English-language learners. These requirements are outlined in this report from the Council of Chief State School Officers.

And comparability is a big concern. Student test scores are used to judge schools’ performance, with high stakes implications. So states want to be sure comparing schools that administered different high school tests isn’t like comparing apples and oranges.

As a recent report by FutureEd at Georgetown University notes, some states have taken a more direct path to streamlining testing by bypassing the “locally selected” provision and using the ACT or SAT for ESSA accountability.

Why not cut out the ACT and SAT altogether?

The PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests were developed by multi-state consortia to align with states’ learning standards, and to measure how well students are prepared for their colleges and universities. So why not cut out the traditional admissions tests and just use the consortia-developed exams instead?

As Newsom noted in his veto message, California officials are discussing the feasiblity of this idea.

“This would be a better approach to improving access to college for underrepresented students and reducing ‘testing fatigue,” he wrote.

Of course, even if California’s public university system begins accepting Smarter Balanced for admissions, private schools and out-of-state schools may still stick to more popular measures, like the SAT. And some private scholarship programs would still rely on SAT and ACT scores as part of their applications process. So a change in state admissions policies might have little practical effect for some students.

Photo: Getty


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