Assessment Opinion

The Nonstory Story of Smarter Balanced Field Tests

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — July 14, 2014 4 min read
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Sometimes the lack of news is actually a story.

The spring field test of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams was predicted to be a train wreck. The assessment express would collide with slow moving school districts at the crossroads. The resulting carnage would produce parental protests, editorial outrage, and legislative investigation.

But it didn’t happen. Schools in California tested 97% of their eligible students, some 3.1-million of them, in English and math in grades 3 through 8. California’s students were 73% of the 4.2-million pupils tested by Smarter Balanced (SBAC) in 21 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Anecdotal reports from the field, and an early survey, suggest that students liked the test.

The lack of calamitous collision can be attributed to both the state and school districts stepping up. The legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown plunked down $1.25-billion for Common Core implementation, and districts used a part of that on the technology that made it possible for students to take SBAC’s on-line tests this spring. SBAC also built technical capacity. Some 184,000 students signed on simultaneously, and the system didn’t crash.

To a greater degree than expected, school districts rose to the challenge of getting ready for the tests. “I was not one of those who thought the system was going to crash and burn,” said deputy state superintendent Deborah V.H. Sigman, “but I was surprised at the level at which people embraced it and the degree to which they were engaged. They just took it on and did everything that they could to learn from the process and make the process successful. Our teachers, our administrators were just fantastic.”

The field test was Sigman’s swansong at the California Department of Education. She leaves this month to become deputy superintendent of the 12,000-student Rocklin Unified School District east of Sacramento. As she has in the past, she sees the state’s Common Core adoption and the SBAC testing as an evolution of standards and associated tests going back two decades. And she is not particularly anxious about the 2015 test administration, when students are scheduled to get scores for the first time.

As she said in an interview recently, “Recall when we had our first set of standards, about between 25% and 30% of our kids were proficient at the time. There were complaints from folks that California had set its standards too high. We want to make sure that our expectations are realistic, but also to recognize the rigor of the content.”

Sigman recalled the movement from minimum competency tests in the 1970s, to proficiency tests beginning in the late 1990s, and to more ambitious “college and career ready” standards that the Common Core is supposed to represent. Each phase was accompanied by alarm followed by pleasant relief that schools were making progress. She expects that to happen again, and I hope she’s right.

But I have doubts.

The SBAC train will pass the intersection with California’s public schools again next spring, fully loaded and picking up speed, and the emerging politics of the Common Core make a collision rather more likely than less.

First, successful field testing illuminated but did not address thousands of what are called “little problems” that will need correcting before next spring. Every school district has a list. Participants at a recent PACE conference on the Common Core provided a familiar litany about failed connections to the Internet and forgotten passwords. Jeanine Robertson, the associate superintendent for instruction in the Charter Oak Unified School District, which I’ve been following, has her list, which includes getting workable cardboard shields so students can’t read one another’s screens during testing. Attention to detail is not as glamorous as systems thinking but it’s necessary. Actually, attention to detail is one of the Common Core standards.

The larger danger concerns the capacity of instructional change to get out ahead of the new tests and of the political system to absorb disquieting test results.

The implementers of the Common Core and SBAC would do well to scrutinize the “Lessons from the Past” a case study of the short-lived California Learning Assessment System (CLAS), which was administered only twice in the early 1990s before falling to political opposition. The California Collaborative on District Reform examined CLAS and its strong parallels to the Common Core and SBAC testing. Both increased standards and required reasoned responses rather than bubble test answers. Both left teachers thinking that the new standards and tests were too hard. Both were the products of the best technical and pedagogical minds in the country. Both heavily involved teachers in their development.

But CLAS overpromised and underdelivered. It was caught in controversy over technical errors and philosophical issues about some of its questions and reading passages. As CLAS stumbled, there was no one to pick it up again. As a researcher quoted in “Lessons...” said, “Ultimately, there was never a political coalition built around CLAS. It was largely a movement of education groups and leadership.”

In the absence of support, and without strong champions, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed legislation that would have reauthorized CLAS’ funding.

Not to learn from this history is to invite repeating it.

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