Reading about SB 740, State Senator Loni Hancock’s (D-Oakland) bill to eliminate second grade STAR testing, took me back to my daughter’s initiation into standardized testing. She puked. “She almost made it out the classroom door,” her second-grade teacher told me with a laugh. Since she didn’t have a fever and nothing happened that night, I brought her back to school the next day. Her classmates applauded when she walked in. Was it stress? Perhaps. She’s in college now and says she still dislikes tests.
Hancock shares that aversion. She’s tried twice to pass similar legislation. Both bills died. SB 740 has made it to the Senate floor, where it will be voted on today. (See update below) “The second-grade test is something that has been of concern to her for a long time because of the recommendation of numerous groups that to do an assessment of second graders is not reliable,” said Rebecca Baumann, a legislative aide to the senator.
No high stakes for young children
The National PTA has taken the position that “Standardized multiple-choice tests and school readiness tests should never be used with preschool and early elementary children for any purpose.” The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) developed guidelines urging discretion in testing children 8 and under:
The use of formal standardized testing and norm referenced assessments of young children is limited to situations in which such measures are appropriate and potentially beneficial, such as identifying potential disabilities.
In place of the STAR exam, Hancock’s bill requires the State Department of Education to provide school districts with information on assessments in mathematics and English language arts that classroom teachers can use for purely diagnostic purposes – something that most teachers already do as a matter of course.
Baumann says diagnostic tests are more practical because they can be given several times during a school year to provide teachers with immediate feedback on how each student is doing. STAR test results aren’t released until the school year is over. Plus, diagnostic tests don’t take up as much class time. “It takes six to eight days to administer the [STAR] test,” says Baumann. “The amount of time taken away from instruction at the second grade level is substantial.”
740 is a blunt instrument
Despite its difficult past, the current bill has few opponents on record. The staff analysis lists only EdVoice, a nonprofit organization working for school reform in California. But it’s a vociferous critic. President and CEO Bill Lucia calls it “a blunt instrument approach to taking the second grade out of the API (Academic Performance Index).” Lucia isn’t against having a policy discussion of whether the second-grade test should be included in the API, but says that’s a whole different discussion.
His foremost concern is that waiting until third grade is too late to learn whether students are working below grade level. “We know the consequence of that can be extremely costly,” said Lucia, citing statistics that show a grim path, with students below grade level by the end of third grade being four times more likely to drop out of school, and dropouts being eight times more likely to wind up in prison.
The State Department of Education hasn’t yet taken a position on 740, but State Superintendent Tom Torlakson “is supportive of the concept,” said Erin Gabel, his director for legislative affairs. In fact the Department sponsored a bill by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) that, initially, also eliminated second-grade testing. But Brownley removed that provision from AB 250 in order to get it out of the appropriations committee. The bill passed the Assembly yesterday and is now headed for the Senate.
The main thrust of 250 is to make sure the state is prepared for the Common Core assessments that are set to begin in 2014-15. California has put all curriculum framework, professional development, and instructional materials adoption on hold while waiting for the Common Core standards, but Gabel says that’s poor planning. “It’s imperative that we provide direction and support for classroom instruction. We’re on a tight timeline here.”
Conflicting opinions on NCLB and second grade
EdVoice’s Lucia also argues that Title III of No Child Left Behind requires all English language learners in kindergarten through 12th grade to be tested every year to assess their progress. He says California stands to lose millions in federal funding if second graders are exempt from the STAR test. But Gabel says that’s not so. If it were true, then the state would already be out of compliance because it doesn’t administer the tests in kindergarten and first grade. She said the state has been using the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which assesses English proficiency, without any pushback from the federal government.
In fact, California is one of just a handful of states that has second graders take the exam. NCLB only requires standardized testing to begin in third grade, so the two panels developing tests for the Common Core standards are also starting with third grade. But just because it’s not mandated, says Lucia, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Without second grade scores, he says, we’ll be losing “data to make better informed decisions on what’s working for kids.”
Update: Turns out that SB 740 passed the Senate last night on a vote of 21 to 13, and was sent to the Assembly