Palo Alto schools prep for new standards

Out with the STAR test, in with new metrics when national standards take effect in 2014

California schools will revamp their standardized tests in 2014, replacing the California Standards Test (STAR) with a new exam to assess students under the soon-to-be implemented "Common Core State Standards."

The new standards -- set to take effect in all but a handful of states by the 2014-15 school year -- are a push by the nation's governors and state school chiefs to align diverse curricula across the nation with the knowledge and skills they say are needed for success in college and the workplace.

In Palo Alto, teachers, principals and administrators have been discussing what the new standards will mean locally since last spring.

"A lot is left up to the school districts -- there isn't exactly one way to do this, and we want to listen to teacher insights," said Charles Young, Palo Alto's associate superintendent for educational services.

The Common Core State Standards do not dictate specific curriculum, though they do recommend types of books that could be suitable for various grade levels, Young said.

"We're digging into them, learning them and seeing how these can help us improve a system that's already really strong," he said.

At an upcoming meeting of principals, JLS Principal Sharon Ofek will give a presentation on testing under the new standards that's being developed by a state-led consortium called Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, Young said.

It's been 15 years since California last adopted new standards for math and English.

The existing standards match the Common Core standards "in their level of rigor and call for high expectations for all students," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said.

But the new standards "provide for additional skills and knowledge necessary in a global economy and technology-rich workplace," he said.

"For example, under the Common Core State Standards students will learn to work collaboratively and use digital media to express and present evidence-based fiction and non-fiction literary analysis," Torlakson said.

"The Common Core State Standards also focus on extending mathematical thinking to real-world challenges so that students develop a depth of understanding and an ability to solve everyday problems through the power of mathematics."

Young said he thinks Palo Alto students will notice changes brought about by the new standards.

"I think kids will notice some difference in the way we look at writing and also the way we look at reading in younger grades," he said.

"In language arts, around writing, you'll see for example a move away from an emphasis on persuasion to presenting an argument and a logical display of thought process. You'll see more expository-type writing," he said.

Perhaps most noticeable to students will be changes in standardized testing.

California is part of the 31-member Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups working to formulate tests to measure performance under the new standards.

"There are already banks of tests you can go to and look at," Young said.

The new system will allow "use of assessment data in a much more fruitful way than the current system because the nature of the questions is more sophisticated. It's not just multiple choice, but the questions involve more critical thinking and problem-solving."

End-of-year "summative assessments" will be mandatory under the new system, but Young said he's more excited about the possibility of more frequent, lower-stakes "interim" and "formative" tests, which will be optional.

"When you do that more frequently you can identify kids who need additional help and modify your instructional practices based on assessment data," he said. "It will benefit kids and us more."

Developed under the leadership of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core State Standards have been fully adopted by every state except Alaska, Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia.

Related material:

Common Core State Standards -- myths versus facts


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Hmm .. not sure why my posting was censored by the Weekly. Will try again.
Will these new tests provide any continuity in their results with the former STAR test results (ie .. API), or will there now be a discontinuity between the past fifteen years of test results and those of this new type?

 +   Like this comment
Posted by not another test
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anoni
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I've read through most of the Common Core and I assure you that your kid's classroom will remain the same because the teachers are going to teach how they want. That can be great if you have a teacher who knows what she's doing, but it's a nightmare with the teachers who don't.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Troll?
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm

"all kids have historically been terrified of that test"

Are you joking? STAR testing, since it has no bearing on individual grades or records, is perhaps the least stressful of the standardized tests.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm

"evidence-based fiction"? - were some of our local newspapers instrumental in the formation of the language arts standard?

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I agree with "Troll?" that many students don't take the test seriously because it doesn't impact grades. Our family looks at them as a loose guideline but since we have children in high school and college, we know the STAR test results have little impact on future academic success. Your children can still earn a "good" GPA (3.7+) GPA even if they scored Basic or low on STAR testing, as we have experienced.

However, there are parents who follow it closely and view it as extremely important. One mom told me she knew the past teacher was bad because her child's STAR test results had fallen. This is a parent who pushed her children too hard and now they are rebelling. There are pushy parents out there and I pity their children.

The SAT is far more stressful for students because it affects college admissions.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm

If these tests are taking over from the STAR tests then are these tests actually testing the students, the teachers, or the schools?

Many students put no effort whatsoever in the STAR tests because they know that it makes no difference to them and who can blame them? Why should they try hard on a test when they make no difference to the classes they take or the colleges they get into. This applies at elementary levels just as much as at high school.

To make a test more meaningful it has to be something that the students see a benefit from. Otherwise, it is just a waste of time as far as they are concerned

Secondly, we should be paying just as much attention to testing against international standards as we are against national or state standards. If we are using STAR testing to establish our ratings against international examinations, then there is no wonder that we are way down the list when the students here don't care about STAR tests and other countries' tests are what they use to get into colleges.

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Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 1, 2012 at 12:55 am

@Wayne - the standards and the assessments are new. I don't know if anyone from the state is arguing otherwise, but I'd be skeptical regarding any claim of continuity. State School Board Pres. and Stanford professor Michael Kirst has said that we'll need at least a few years worth of data from the new system in order to begin determining what any of it really means.

@not another test - you're thinking of another test (I don't know which one), and such a claim about "all students" simply can't hold up to scrutiny.

@Mom - it sounds like you're not buying the assertion that a student's low test scores reflect bad teaching. There are many, many reasons that students scores rise and fall, and if you look more broadly, a pattern relating scores to teachers will not be so clear.

@Parent - you've raised a key question. I think the most valid use of the tests is to look at school, district, regional or state-level performance, or to make broad comparisons of large samples of results. For the individual student, the test results may or may not be a strong indicator of skills. As a teacher, I can look at high scores in my students' records and make some reasonable inferences about some of their reading skills. However, I do not find that low scores are as helpful. There are few explanations for high scores other than skills. Low scores, however, may reflect actual skills, may be a fluke, a function of disinterest, and in high school students, even willful disregard for the test.

As for the idea of judging teachers by the test scores, there are far too many factors involved to make that valid or reliable. Numerous professional research organizations including the National Research Council, and policy organizations including the Economics Policy Institute, have warned against teacher evaluation based on use student test results, and held that there's little stability in so-called "value-added" estimates that attempt to show the teacher's effect.

And regarding international comparisons, it might be interesting, but again, you can't assume too much without knowing the test, the students being tested, and differences in the school systems' approaches and resources. From what I've read, American students from schools with low poverty levels generally measure up just fine. The most significant factor in low performance is poverty, and I would argue that in most cases "failing schools" are the setting where we see symptom of social inequity and neglect; they are not the cause of the main problems faced by students living in poverty.

Folks, anyone here besides Wayne willing to discuss these issues with names attached to your post? I ask that whenever I post, but things don't change much around Palo Alto Online.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 1, 2012 at 1:00 am

And one more note: "evidence-based fiction" is cutting it too narrowly.

"evidence-based fiction and non-fiction literary analysis" is supposed to indicate "evidence-based analysis of fiction and non-fiction."

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Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 1, 2012 at 8:19 am

@ David Cohen
Glad to see you got the point. The reference to our dear newspaper was just for fun.

On a different note, I'm hoping there is a move to put more everyday writing into the Social Studies curriculum and more chunked projects. Now it seems like, while most of our students go on to a four year college, the preparation in this area is reserved for our AP and H students.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 1, 2012 at 11:15 am

> "Common Core State Standards."

So why is California ditching its STAR standards/tests?

And this seems like another of the never-ending attempts to completely neuter standardized testing as a school management tool--

New CA law will focus less on test scores as part of API:
Web Link

The so-called "Exit Exam" is almost useless as a tool to judge students ability to function in the real world. Seems the Legislature is trying to make the API almost as useless too.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Big Al
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2012 at 7:55 am

And they call this news!

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