The first-ever results from the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments, using new Common Core-aligned content standards for English language arts/literacy and math, were released Wednesday by the California Department of Education.
The tests, given to third through eighth-graders and 11th-graders, were designed to promote more critical thinking and help students develop problem-solving skills they can use in the real world. Smarter Balanced falls under the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.
Overall, 44 percent of California students met or exceeded the English language arts standards and 33 percent met or exceeded them in math.
State School Superintendent Tom Torlakson said California has a persistent achievement gap among students from low-income families, those learning English and some ethnic groups. But he said the scores in part reflect the rigor of the new academic standards. They focus on crucial abilities, such as analyzing problems, thinking independently and writing clearly with evidence.
“California is in the process of transforming its schools with increased funding, higher academic standards, more local control and additional support for students and schools with the greatest needs – and this will take time,” he said Wednesday.
Overall, 44 percent of California students met or exceeded the English/language arts standards and 33 percent met or exceeded them in math. Here’s how other student groups compared, in meeting or exceeding standards:
▪ Low-income students: 31 percent English, 21 percent math
▪ English learners: 11 percent English, 11 percent math
▪ Students with disabilities: 12 percent English, 9 percent math
▪ Asian students: 72 percent English, 69 percent math
▪ White students: 61 percent English, 49 percent math
▪ Hispanic/Latino students: 32 percent English, 21 percent math
▪ African-American students: 28 percent English, 16 percent math
California’s state universities and most community colleges use the 11th-grade results as an early signal of college readiness. In English/language arts, 56 percent of 11th-graders statewide tested ready or conditionally ready for college, while 29 percent tested that way in math.
Fresno Unified scores lag
Some school districts in the central San Joaquin Valley fared better or worse than the state average. Among Fresno Unified School District students overall, 27 percent met or exceeded English/language arts standards, while 18 percent met or exceeded them in math.
A school district’s demographics play a major role in student test scores. Most students tested at Fresno Unified – 67 percent – are Hispanic or Latino, 11 percent are Asian, 10 percent are white, and 8 percent are black. White students scored higher than Latino and black students.
English learners at Fresno Unified scored the lowest by far, with just 2 percent meeting English language arts standards and 3 percent meeting math standards
Here’s a further breakdown of the Fresno Unified results for meeting or exceeding standards:
▪ Low-income students: 24 percent English, 15 percent math
▪ English learners: 2 percent English, 3 percent math (none exceeded)
▪ Students with disabilities: 5 percent English, 4 percent math
▪ Asian students: 33 percent English, 23 percent math
▪ White students: 47 percent English, 36 percent math
▪ Hispanic/Latino students: 24 percent English, 15 percent math
▪ African-American students: 17 percent English, 9 percent math
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson spoke about the results at a Wednesday news conference.
He said he was slightly concerned about the low test scores, but he noted that they compare similarly to the scores from the first round of California Standardized Testing and Recording (STAR) tests from 2001.
“We showed growth every year when those results came out, and I am confident we will do it again,” he said.
Hanson said these test results only account for 20 percent of the district’s accountability to the federal government. Fresno Unified is one of six districts in California given a special waiver to use a new accountability system, which includes factors like attendance, behavior issues, co-curricular participation, growth and social/emotional health surveys to determine how a student is doing. Performance in these other areas is improving, Hanson said, adding that report cards detailing students’ performances in these aspects will be shared with parents soon.
The other five school districts within this group saw similar test score drops of around 30 points from 2012 STAR results to 2014 Smarter Balanced Summative Assessment scores, Hanson said. Fresno ranks fifth in English/Language Arts scores, above Santa Ana and below Long Beach, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland. Fresno was last in the group in 2014 math scores.
He said the district has yet to receive individual test scores, which means parents likely won’t receive them until October. STAR test results typically arrived in July, he added, which gave teachers time to plan their curricula according to the individual needs of their incoming students. Teachers will now have to do that on the fly.
Hanson said the district is focused on improving test scores by working at the front end of the issue, with increased focus on pre-kindergarten and elementary education. More than 80 percent of district students have attended preschool, up from 42 percent a decade ago. Last spring, the board approved a $7 million initiative to replace K-8 textbooks at every school with new ones that reflect Common Core standards. Teachers now receive an extra 80 hours of paid training per year, and 30 schools expanded their school day by 30 minutes this year. Hanson said 40 schools will extend their school day next year.
Clovis Unified fares well
Clovis Unified School District, one of Fresno County’s top-performing districts, had higher scores than the state average. Among students overall, 60 percent met or exceeded English/language arts standards, while 50 percent met or exceeded them in math.
Student achievement numbers consistently exceeded state and county averages by more than 15 to 20 percent in both categories, the district noted.
Superintendent Janet Young noted that the results of the new assessments provide educators with a wealth of information that will guide teacher instruction in the coming year.
“Our goal is that 100 percent of our students reach or exceed grade-level standards, and information from the new assessments is already being used by our teachers and school leaders to improve instruction,” she said. “We are a district that is committed to continuous improvement and will use California’s new assessment data to guide our educational practices in the coming years.”
At Central Unified School District, 31 percent of students met or exceeded English/language arts standards, while 22 percent met or exceeded them in math.
Among students in Madera Unified School District, 25 percent met or exceeded English/language arts standards, while 16 percent met or exceeded them in math.
Superintendent Ed Gonzalez said that this year’s scores are a baseline, and he anticipates his district will show steady growth in years to come.
“We consider the results to be an opportunity to show our community where our students are at academically,” he said.
Visalia Unified better than county peers
At Visalia Unified School District, 42 percent of students met or exceeded English/language arts standards, while 29 percent met or exceeded them in math.
Superintendent Craig Wheaton said Visalia students scored better than fellow students countywide but lower than students statewide, and that’s the norm for Visalia.
The bright spot is that 11th-grade language arts scores were notably advanced compared with third grade scores, indicating to educators that students are learning as they progress toward graduation, he said.
But the overall math score was lower than the statewide score by five percentage points.
“That’s a bigger gap than I think we should have,” Wheaton said. “We still have a long way to go to improve in math.”
Math scores under Common Core standards involve more language and less straight computation, which is a challenge for regions with language difficulties, he said.
Administrators and teachers will be delving into the math scores to decide what steps to take, he said.
‘Not the test that drives us’
Among Sanger Unified School District students, 44 percent met or exceeded English/language arts standards, while 35 percent met or exceeded them in math.
This is just one measure of our students. It’s a harder test, and we’re going to use it to get better at what we do when it comes to educating our kids.
Matt Navo, Sanger Unified superintendent
Sanger Unified Superintendent Matt Navo said comparing the results to previous years is like comparing apples and oranges, and said that unlike in the past, the district is less focused on mastering test scores and more focused on what students need to graduate.
“This is just one measure of our students. It’s a harder test, and we’re going to use it to get better at what we do when it comes to educating our kids,” Navo said. “But it’s not the test that drives us anymore. It’s the vision – what we want students to be able to do when they leave here. We don’t ever want to get to a place where we’re trying to master this test again.”
Smarter Balanced, and the breakdown of scores, is starkly different from the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessments it replaces. Because of that, Torlakson said the results cannot be compared to prior years.
The tests are divided into two parts: A computer test and a performance task, in which students apply their skills to real-world problems. STAR, in contrast, was a multiple-choice test in which students mostly filled in bubbles on paper.
The computer tests are adaptive, meaning questions become more or less difficult based on how the student performs. They also broaden the way a student can answer – some questions ask students to draw an object or click and drag items into a selected field.
Students receive an overall score from 2,000 to 3,000 and are grouped into one of four achievement levels: standard not met, standard nearly met, standard met and standard exceeded.
Subcategories, called “claims,” break down scores even further. For the English language arts section, students are judged on their reading, writing, listening and research/inquiry skills. Math claims include problem solving and model/data analysis, concepts and procedures, and communicating reasoning.
The California Standards Test measures students’ science skills and is given to fifth-, eighth- and tenth-graders. The new science standards are still being developed.