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Education Matters: New Testing to Match New Curriculum

Come spring, the STAR test will be replaced with a computerized test that measures student progress, not just performance.



Teachers, students, and parents rejoice: Come spring this school year, the unpopular STAR test will be no more. On October 3, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that not only gets rid of the test, but also authorizes a new, computerized form of testing that is intended to better evaluate a child's progress throughout the school year, as well as his or her ability to think analytically, not just answer multiple choice questions.

Assembly Bill 484 was authored by Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), a former high school English teacher who was elected in 2010. That same year, the common core curriculum was released, a new set of education standards that schools nationwide must implement by next year.

The new test will be given to kids in grades three to 11, and will reflect what the new curriculum teaches. It will be rolled out in schools this spring for a practice run, but won’t count until 2015. Bonilla spoke with Diablo the day the bill passed.

Why did you write this bill?

Really, the intention of AB 484 is to make sure that the testing we’re doing on our children matches up to the curriculum that we’re teaching them. We’ve made a transition to common core this year, and the bill authorizes a new form of testing that is computer-based and lines up with the common core curriculum, and gets rid of STAR testing. If we were to continue the STAR test this year, we would really be teaching our children from a new point of view, and then using an old test.

The governor and the superintendent and I believe that that’s the best educational policy for California, because if you put the teacher in a position where you tell them to introduce a new style of teaching, and then you say, “By the way, in May, we’re going to test you using the old STAR test,” the teachers get a conflicting message.

What was wrong with the STAR test?

I think that the STAR test served a really good purpose. It was part of No Child Left Behind, and really, it was a great initiative to say, “We should be keeping track of how our students are doing, and be held accountable for making improvements.” However, there became too much of an emphasis on the testing itself. That is what we started to hear years ago, and now this is a response to the concerns we’ve heard about the performance of our students when they finally graduate, and what we were hearing is that they were not adequately prepared for college or the work force.

When Obama came into office and was thinking about what he wanted to be his educational legacy, the emphasis turned to preparing kids for college and the workforce; to be critical thinkers, to be able to problem solve and analyze. And the primary difference in the common core curriculum is the focus is upon helping children learn to think, helping them to analyze, helping them to understand why something is the way it is, as opposed to teaching them to a multiple choice test.

It’s really a shift in our educational focus. With the computer testing, the questions that the students are going to experience are going to be more complex in nature, and are going to be trying to decipher how their thinking process is developing, as opposed to simply saying, “You got it right,” or “You got it wrong.”

How will the new test be different?

They are still in the process of developing the test. The field test this year will be used to actually inform what questions will be included in 2015, and will tell us what questions are working to get at this information of a child’s ability to think analytically.

It will be a computer-adapted test that, as you answer, questions will change in difficulty. If a child is doing extremely well, they will get more difficult questions. If a child is struggling, the questions will stay at the same level, or they may drop down in difficulty. And that way, they will be able to pinpoint much more accurately where the weakness or where the strength of the child is.

The STAR was just evaluating performance at the end of the year, but this test also has a component that includes question banks that teachers can use throughout the year that will show them and the student how a student’s thinking is coming along, and how their skills are developing. That’s the “progress” piece of the new test, along with the “performance” piece that was already there. And teachers are very excited that they’re going to have this tool to use to guide them in their instruction, and also to give their students feedback.

How well prepared are East Bay schools to implement this new test?

I think we’re probably ahead of the curve. Our location geographically probably works in our favor. The districts struggling more are in more remote or rural communities. They may be lagging behind in some of those areas of technology.

I believe our school districts in the East Bay are poised and ready to learn a lot from this transitional year, and then use the resources that the state must continue to give them to make this transition successful. My hope is that we will see the governor or legislature come forward next year with more money to help complete the transition. It’s great that schools got the $1.25 billion in the budget this year to help them make this transition, but next year, we’re going to need more, because we’re going to find out that there are districts without adequate computer systems, and other things.

More on the Common Core State Standards Initiative
More on Susan Bonilla
Read AB 484

What should parents know?

The first thing parents always want to know is, “Have you stopped second grade testing?” Universally, parents and teachers and students have hated STAR testing in the second grade, and this will make it so that testing starts in third grade. That's the number one concern among parents.

I would really encourage parents to look on the Internet and understand common core, and to go to parents' events like Back to School night.

Parents also need to be prepared for the fact that scores will go down with the new test at first. The younger their child, the easier the transition will be for their child, because they haven't been taught one way for years and now we're switching it. Seventh, eighth, ninth graders might have a harder time transitioning, and they may feel the questions are much harder. Younger children will have smoother transition and less of a conflict in changing gears.

How will the new test be introduced to students?

The way it was originally set up, 20 percent of students in California would be given a field test, but what the bill says is, “Let’s give it to all students in California.” So this year, all students will have an opportunity to experience a computerized test with the field test.

The state superintendent will develop how the field test will work, and he'll determine who gets English language arts or math, and the state will pay for that portion of the field test. All districts have the option to purchase that other section if they would like to. The reason for that is because the bill mandates the field test, and we were concerned that because there will be districts who will not be ready with technology, we did not want to overburden their system.

The real benefit will be for the school district, who will be able to see what their implementation will be like, and have time to make the necessary adjustments between now and May of 2015, when scores for the new test are going to count.

Editor's Note

Added: 2009-09-21

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