Embarking on a new era of testing, California has replaced the decade-old STAR program with a new assessment that differs from the old both in substance and delivery.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment is still in the pilot-testing phase — thus, this year's results don't count and will not be reported to parents or to schools.
Unlike the old test, which was geared to California State Standards, the content of Smarter Balanced is aligned with the new Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 44 states, including California, as well as by the District of Columbia.
And all kids are taking the test by computer, not by the old fill-in-the-bubble method.
Between March 28 and May 16, about 6,500 Palo Alto students in grades three through eight — as well as high school juniors — are taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment. In elementary and middle school, students are typically taking it over two mornings. For 11th graders, it's been given in a single stretch of two to three hours, said statistician Diana Wilmot, director of research and evaluation for the Palo Alto Unified School District.
Even as the Common Core standards are attacked by critics from both the left and the right, Gov. Jerry Brown last fall signed legislation tossing the old test and ordering a trial run of Smarter Balanced in California schools this year.
Once it's past the pilot phase, the new test will be predictive of a student's college and career readiness, Wilmot said.
"It will give students feedback as early as third grade about their trajectory toward that mark," she said. It also will enable teachers to measure students' progress during the year through unofficial, online "interim assessments."
Content of the test goes beyond multiple-choice questions to integrate a classroom activity, Wilmot said. For example, a teacher will moderate a 30-minute class discussion on a topic such as all the factors a person needs to consider before building a garden. Following the discussion, students log into Smarter Balanced to take a "performance task" related to the classroom activity.
On the technical side, the new online test adapts to the test-taker's level, meaning the questions it generates will differ for students, depending on their answers to previous questions.
"It modifies the test for every student, which is a quicker and more efficient way to narrow down a student's ability," Wilmot said.
Calculators and glossaries will appear on the screen if they are needed to work out a problem.
The new test also builds in accommodations for special education students, such as larger print size or a "text-to-speech" feature for students who need questions read to them. It also incorporates American Sign Language. Previously, schools had to administer a separate test, the California Modified Assessment, to some special education students.
This year's pilot primarily will test technical aspects of the SBA, Wilmot said.
Students will take exit surveys on their testing experience and schools will collect data on which devices worked best for test delivery.
"Next year, we'll try to figure out how kids are doing and will probably need more items (on the test)," Wilmot said.
With no statewide student achievement data for 2013-14, school districts' Academic Performance Index (API) scores will be frozen this year and it remains to be seen exactly how they'll be calculated under the Smarter Balanced regime, she said.
"It's a break in the system," she said. For now, "we need to get past the technology part, the infrastructure part and the 'newness' part.
"We'll get baseline data in spring of 2015 on where our kids are at and go from there. It's a better system. It aligns more with instruction and curriculum, it takes advantage of technology to measure students' critical thinking and analysis, and it measures college and career readiness," she said.