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California to use new type of nationwide school tests

Through a federal grant, California will join 43 other states in replacing oft-maligned standardized exams.

September 03, 2010|By Howard Blume and Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

With a federal award of $330 million, California and 43 other states joined Thursday to replace the much-maligned year-end English and math standardized tests with new nationwide tests that could better measure student learning and teacher performance.

Also Thursday, the Los Angeles Board of Education formally directed its superintendent, for the first time, to include student test score data as part of teachers' evaluations. That change would have to be negotiated with the teachers union.

The nationwide tests would be like nothing ever approached on such a scale: Smarter, computer-based exams, for example, would deliver harder or easier questions during the exam based on student responses. And the tests will strive to evaluate critical thinking, writing, researching and even listening skills.

Exams in math and English would be rolled out across the country in 44 participating states for the 2014-15 school year. When that happens, state tests that cost billions to produce would become obsolete. And years of data on how schools are progressing could also become meaningless going forward.

Those trade-offs are worth accepting, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in order to achieve the goal of measuring student achievement aligned with common national academic standards, which most states have adopted this summer. In addition, he said, the system would save money in the long run because each state would no longer have to develop its own tests.

"This is going to change the way children are taught," Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. And, "most importantly, the way we support teachers." The new tests, he added, also will address the No. 1 complaint he's heard from teachers: that "bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn't measure what really matters."

A higher-level test question, for example, would ask students to choose from a list of online resources and to extract the information necessary to write a brief research paper in response to a prompt.

In Los Angeles, a teachers union official criticized standardized tests and the school district's plans to use them in evaluating instructors.

"This is not an educational tool; this is an educational weapon" aimed at weakening job protections, said Mat Taylor of United Teachers Los Angeles. Elsewhere, he added, such efforts have translated to silencing union activists and narrowing what students are taught.

The diversion, as he called it, over teacher evaluations "keeps us from talking about the real issues we face," such as inadequate funding and lack of meaningful teacher input at schools.

The debate over linking student data to teacher evaluations intensified after The Times began a series based on a "value-added" analysis of seven years' worth of scores. An increasing number of school districts have adopted the method, using a student's year-to-year changes on standardized tests to estimate a teacher's effectiveness. The Times also published a database of value-added ratings it calculated for more than 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers, an action criticized by the union leadership.

Board member Steve Zimmer, a former teacher, insisted that the district's goal would be a process that would benefit teachers.

The board voted 6 to 0, with one member absent, to call for using multiple measures — including student test scores, professional observations and other measures — to evaluate teachers.

"We share the sense of urgency with the multitudes who have voiced qualified support of a more professional and data-informed culture," according to the resolution by board member Yolie Flores.

In public and in informal negotiations, union leaders have said that the evaluation process needs overhauling. But they haven't agreed to include a value-added formula.

District officials said they plan to present a formal proposal for negotiations by Sept. 14.

"We have full confidence our union partners will step forward and work with us," Flores said.

The district already has committed to issuing confidential value-added scores to employees by October and including school scores on campus "report cards" posted online and sent to parents. These scores will probably be based on a different formula than the one used by The Times, said Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.

Duncan said a new generation of tests would better gauge teacher effectiveness, but encouraged school systems to move forward with the data they have, provided that scores are not used in isolation.

Two groups applied successfully for the federal test-development grants. Some states belong to both teams. California is part of one, led by Florida, that includes 26 states and the District of Columbia. That plan features tests throughout the year to offer feedback to teachers in time to adjust classroom strategies.

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