Brown wants fast results, fewer tests

Gov. Jerry Brown picked up on a common complaint of teachers, superintendents, and parents in his State of the State address last week: Schools have closed for the summer by the time they get the scores of standardized tests that students took the previous spring. At that point, the results are a lot less useful.

Brown’s call for a quicker turnaround – “I believe it is time to reduce the number of tests and get the results to teachers, principals, and superintendents in weeks, not months” – is doable, according to experts I spoke with. Most states already get their tests back quicker than California, and California can do so, too – if the state is willing to change how it administers and validates its standardized tests. The state could have – and probably should have – taken this step years ago, said Doug McRae, a retired standardized test publisher and occasional TOP-Ed contributor.

In his speech, Brown pointed to one benefit of earlier results: “With timely data, principals and superintendents can better mentor and guide teachers as well as make sound evaluations of their performance.” Given Brown’s skepticism of standardized tests, I was surprised he raised linking them to teacher evaluations. His friends at the California Teachers Assn. must have cringed. But as an analytic tool, teachers do need the CST results before they depart for the year and can think over the summer of the changes they’ll make. Once they return in the fall,  they have next year’s students on their minds.

A quicker turnaround of CST results can also help teachers and schools make wiser placement decisions for students in courses like Algebra I. And it can be helpful to students, too, especially high school juniors taking the Early Assessment Program, the college readiness exam that’s part of the 11th grade English and math CST. Early results can guide them on what to do their senior year. And if, as some suggest, the state starts counting end-of-the-year subject exams toward a student’s grade (either that or stop giving some altogether), then they’ll have to be graded and returned sooner.

Change in testing method

CSTs are administered after 85 percent of the instructional year is over. Since each district sets its own calendar, and some districts on year-round schedules start as early as July, CSTs are taken from February through May in parts of California. The state could administer the tests sooner, after, say, 75 percent of instructional days, says Rachel Perry, director of the Analysis, Measures and Accountability Reporting Division for the state Department of Education. But that would create comparability problems with past years’ results.

The more practical option would be to change the way test results are compared yearly, from a “post-equating” to a “pre-equating” method. Under the current system, the test publisher, Educational Testing Service, waits until after the tests are administered to do a scoring analysis of the new questions that were introduced. The alternative is “pre-equating,” in which new items would be introduced and analyzed as sample items in earlier years. Then the turnaround would take weeks, not months. The public release of statewide CST and individual school results would remain Aug. 15.

McRae said it was probably smart to have been cautious and to have used post-equating in the early years of the CSTs. The state could have switched methods once it had experience under its belt, he said. “There’s no longer a risk.”

Perry said the state could convert to a quicker turnaround by the 2013-14 school year, but this should be done in the context of a larger plan for testing. Brown has also called for fewer standardized tests, and the State Board of Education must decide which tests may be displaced by new assessments connected to the Common Core standards in English language arts and math.

“We need a comprehensive look at the entire system,” said Perry.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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