Palo Alto students help pilot new state test

In April testing period, local students try new 'Smarter Balanced' assessment

It's out with No. 2 pencils and in with "click and drag" as students take on this spring's standardized tests in Palo Alto and across the state.

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.

The Common Core standards were developed 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 in the workplace.

Once it's past the pilot phase, the new, Common Core-based 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. A teacher could moderate a 30-minute class discussion on a topic such as all the factors a person needs to consider before building a garden, for example. 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.


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Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2014 at 9:34 am

Most of us still don't know what is in the so-called common core, and who is actually in charge of the content. The California Standards were highly praised at the time of their creation, with people associated with education in California participating in the debates and the decision as to what to include in the standards, and the tests. Common Core was driven, to some degree, by Bill Gates (and his money). Gates, while becoming very successful riding on the backs of educated employees--never bothered to finish a Bx degree. It's hard to listen to him lecture others--when he is still sans degree.

To whatever degree local control exists (or ever existed)--Common Core puts a stake in the heart of the concept, and any real control that parents might want to have over the education of their children in a public school setting.

National Review Online--Common Core Corrupts:
Web Link

The need to drop the STAR tests has never been openly debated. The Legislature seems to have taken it upon themselves to jettison the California Standards in the dustbin of history without having any clear reason to do so. Their actions were so difficult to understand that one comes to the point where it's difficult to believe that an elected legislature (heavily backed with Union money) should be in charge of the education of our children.

The fact that the results are not being reported back to the schools, the students, and the public is another example of people who believe that they are no longer servants of the public--but the public's overlords. Not only should the results be reported, but the tests themselves should be made public--so that we can make meaningful comparisons between the STAR tests and the Common Core tests. It would be more than a shame if we ended up having our state's educational standards dumbed down by Washington, and Bill Gates.

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Posted by Alan
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 18, 2014 at 11:45 am

My child took the test yesterday and thought is was a joke compared to the old tests. This new test is going to be a disaster. It would be better to return to the old Star tests.

Like this comment
Posted by Marty
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2014 at 1:05 pm


"Joke"? In what way? Too hard? Too easy? Or just funny questions?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Bob makes a lot of sense in his post.

Whereas national standards make a lot of sense, I ask myself if Common Core does that. It has a lot of criticism which is worrisome, and few supporters.

I would like to know how the Common Core compares itself with say the national curriculum of other countries such as the UK, Finland and Japan.

Ensuring that kids get a basic knowledge of the essentials and the only difference from State to State as far as I can see should be in local in depth history. California Gold Rush and the Missions is important to Californians, but would it be of the same importance to someone living in Florida? Outside of that, all need to be well versed in science, English and math. Foreign language is something that may vary from State to State, but the need for a foreign language is also nationwide.

Most of what I have read on the subject gives little meat to the arguments, and tends to be specifics that only educators would understand in detail. The actual reality of what our kids are learning need to be clear and internationally aligned.

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 18, 2014 at 2:36 pm

@Marty - I'll go beyond joke, and say it is a disaster. Poorly written, but mostly very poor UX. Kids will be struggling more with the interface to the test than getting the correct answers. I'm sure it will eventually get worked out, but expect 4-5 years of garbage data while they fix the testing system. In the meantime, we'll have no clue how students are performing.

Are you curious whether everyday math is working in Palo Alto, well, now there isn't going to be any data on it, so you'll eventually find out when you get your college rejection letter.

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 18, 2014 at 2:41 pm

If you think I'm exaggerating, go check out some of the Smarter Balanced (sounds like margarine) site.

Try the math test, and tell me you don't spend much much more time resolving the interface than the problems.

Web Link

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Posted by don
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2014 at 6:16 pm

The teachers union opposed star testing for years. But they love common core. Need I say more?

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:54 pm

@Don - the common core, and especially the new testing regimen is such a mess, the only good reason for the teacher's union to support it is to help discredit standardized testing and the accountability it brings to schools and teachers.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2014 at 6:50 pm

Common Core is supposed to be a nationwide MINIMUM standard. There's not supposed to be any reason states or school districts can't augment it with more rigorous curricula.

Even Common Core's defenders admit its criteria are intended only to support kids getting into "non-selective" colleges. Sad to say, there's still a huge spectrum of American schools for which Common Core is a higher level than they teach now.

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Posted by Shocker
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2014 at 9:02 am

Just read a short article in Time Magazine about this test. Turns out the curricula that is taught was not improved and updated to match the level,of the test. Some 45-60% of parents in other states pull their kids onto avoid the test, because most will fail it.

Curricula should have been improved before implementing this test.

It seems the test is setting the kids up for failure due to poor planning.

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Posted by PA smart and balanced
a resident of Escondido School
on Apr 22, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Wow - you all know so much about his topic! Thank you for sharing all that wisdom. Your child tells you about the first ever use of one test - so, voilĂ ! - you prognosticate what's going to happen for everyone in the future of the whole enterprise. You connect the dots to Everyday Math and even to college applications - so insightful. You know all about what the unions like or don't like and are able to translate complex positions into such simple terms. You see all the problems with a new test and new curriculum needing to be tried out, and yet see right through those evil bureaucrats who are withholding scores because they "claim" this test is a "trial" run. Not on your watch! What a joy to have such wise know-it-alls in our community.

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Posted by Belinda
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2014 at 1:15 am

It is good news that new tests will be more comfortable for special education students. But as it was said it is so complicated for students as they need some additional lessons to prepare for it. In fact our children have to spend hours at home using additional resources like this one Web Link and still they are so stressed because everything seems very confused for them. And again it was said that new test is aligned with the new Common Core State Standards and it means that they take into consideration the individuality of every student and their personal development.

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Posted by Kay
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 23, 2014 at 8:51 pm

I just spoke with my daughter who took the common core today. She spent 2 hours and answered 7 questions. Then she speeded up (no reading the passages) to finished the next 16 questions. Math took 1 hour. She's a good reader, with good grades in reading.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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