For the second year in a row, both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools failed to meet the government's required participation rates for new standardized test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, with about half of the junior classes choosing to opt out.
About 47 percent of Gunn juniors and 61 percent of Paly juniors submitted exemptions, with their parents' permission, to opt out of two days of testing the week of May 16, according to Janine Penney, the district's manager of research, evaluation and assessment.
At the elementary level, approximately 1 percent of third through fifth graders opted out, according to Penney, and less than 3 percent of middle schoolers.
California schools are required by federal law to meet a 95 percent participation rate. Schools with federal Title I status, meaning they have high percentages of low-income students, could face losing federal funding if they don't meet the participation threshold. Paly and Gunn are not Title I schools.
Last year the first year that the new test would yield official, full results about 50 percent of the junior classes at both schools also decided to opt out, citing concerns about the test's close proximity to upcoming Advanced Placement (AP) and SAT exams.
Smarter Balanced, the successor to the state's longtime Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test, is the new assessment for the Common Core State Standards, which California adopted in 2010. Third- through eighth-graders and high school juniors take the test. Smarter Balanced is adaptive, taken entirely on computers at all grade levels and is aligned with the Common Core values of critical thinking, analytical writing and real-world application.
The new test has not, however, appeared to have caught on with students, despite the district's best efforts. After last year's student complaints, the district scheduled the test this year for after AP and SAT exams rather than before. The Gunn and Paly principals sent messages home to students emphasizing the importance of the test.
"Smarter Balanced Testing is a low stakes assessment for students but a high-stakes test for our high school and its state-wide and national rankings, as well as being the primary source for school-wide data to inform our WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation) continuous improvement process," Paly Principal Kim Diorio wrote.
Superintendent Max McGee, too, wrote specifically to the parents of juniors the first week of May with information about the test. He noted several ways in which the Smarter Balanced results affect students directly, including qualification for the Golden State Seal Merit Diploma, which recognizes graduates who have demonstrated mastery in specific subject areas; for the State Seal of Biliteracy, which recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English; and for the California State University system's Early Assessment Program in English and mathematics. His letter went out in English, Spanish and Mandarin.
Penney noted that the district does not yet know the schools' "positive" participation rates. There are several sections of the test, and a student has to answer a certain number of questions in each in order to be counted as participating. Some students might have also chosen to not show up but did not submit an official exemption letter, she said.
Gunn junior Shannon Yang took the Smarter Balanced test and said she actually felt there was more "pro-Smarter Balanced sentiment" this year. She thought the timing, too, was better -- after the AP testing window and not too close to finals.
While she feels she has a "duty" to participate in standardized testing, she felt other students focus more on the personal impact of the test when deciding whether or not to take it. They might only do so if the Seal of Bilteracy or CSU program is important to them, for example.
"I respect their decision to opt out or in because time is very valuable for us and shouldn't necessarily be spent on tests we don't believe in," she wrote in an email to the Weekly.
The district is now talking about how to improve the high school participation rates next year. Staff are looking at other Santa Clara County school districts' practices and considering not only new scheduling approaches but also around "messaging" for the standardized test, said Chris Kolar, director of research and assessment for the school district.
Some districts have been able to schedule the standardized testing for before spring break farther out from AP and SAT exams but the schools have to complete a certain percentage of instructional days before testing can begin, Penney said. Paly and Gunn do not reach that point until after spring break, she said.
The district will start to send results home to families in August, Penney said, and the state could release full results the next month.