Parents more worried than kids as California rolls out Common Core testing

Fifth-grade teacher Pedro Perez, right, helps Thomas Babcock, 10, during a practice math test March 26 at Folsom Hills Elementary School.
Fifth-grade teacher Pedro Perez, right, helps Thomas Babcock, 10, during a practice math test March 26 at Folsom Hills Elementary School.

Folsom Hills Elementary School students don’t seem nervous about taking new computerized math and English tests in the coming weeks. Their parents are a different story.

The school, nestled in an affluent Folsom neighborhood, is known for its involved parents and high test scores. Movie nights, fall carnivals, spelling bees and science and math events are the norm.

“Parents are more worried than their kids,” said Matt Stuart as he sat under a maroon market umbrella on a patio paid for by the PTA. “People don’t like change.”

Stuart said he understands why schools are adopting the national Common Core standards, which proponents say focus more on critical thinking and problem solving. But he suspects many parents are anxious about the expected dip in test scores. “People tend to have a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

About 3.2 million California students in third through eighth grades, as well as 11th grade, will take the new computer-based Smarter Balanced tests in math and English by the end of June, said Pam Slater, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education. The tests will measure knowledge of each subject, as well as critical thinking, analytical writing and the problem-solving skills necessary to be college and career ready, according to the department.

Other states that already have begun administering Common Core tests saw a significant performance decline in the first year. In 2013, the percentage of New York state students that scored at a proficient level fell from 55 percent to 31 percent in English and language arts and from nearly 65 percent to 31 percent in math.

The potential for that kind of drop has put parents and educators on edge. California education leaders have decided not to use this year’s test to determine each school’s Academic Performance Index, a compilation of student test scores that in past years allowed for school comparisons across the state.

Despite the unknowns, students preparing for the new test at Folsom Hills said it was not any more difficult than tests they have taken in the past.

Last month, students in Pedro Perez’s fifth-grade class took a practice math test. Andrew De La Torre, 10, stared intently at the screen of his Chromebook, while Mandy Breault, 11, used a hand-held whiteboard to work through a problem. Other students scribbled out their work with temporary markers on specially treated desk surfaces.

“Can I bring my own mouse?” asked Jared Poggemann, 11, frustrated with the touch pad on his computer.

“Can I bring an iPad?” asked another student.

The practice test included problems intended for fourth- and sixth-graders, but the exercise this day was more about familiarizing students with taking the new test on a computer.

Folsom Hills students already have had more time than most to get acquainted with the computerized test, which becomes more difficult as students answer questions correctly and less difficult as they falter. The school has been part of a statewide pilot of the test over the past three years.

“I like to do it on a computer better,” said Grant Olson, 10. “A lot of kids are used to computers, so I don’t think it was a bad idea to introduce them.”

Jared said he was glad to be rid of the paper tests, which he called “thick and imposing.”

Grant and Jared were among the first to finish the practice math test. “We are the best at math,” Jared proudly announced.

Beginning April 20, students at the elementary school will take the computerized exam – 100 at a time – in the school’s multipurpose room.

District officials expect results electronically within a month of testing, but parents will have to wait about eight weeks to receive a “student score report” outlining their child’s achievement.

Gone are the “advanced,” “proficient,” “basic,” “below basic” or “far below basic” performance levels of the previous Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) results for English and math. In their place are “standard not met,” “standard nearly met,” “standard met” and “standard exceeded.”

STAR reports scored students between 150 and 600 points in English and math, while the new Smarter Balanced tests rank achievement from 2,000 to 3,000. The 2015 student score report won’t compare the current scores with former STAR tests but will include average scores from last year’s trial Smarter Balanced tests.

It marks the second straight year that California will not issue API scores for schools, an index in which Folsom Hills historically has outperformed most elementary campuses in the region.

“We are hitting the reset button,” Slater said via email. “The new tests are too fundamentally different from the old exams to make any reliable comparisons between old scores and new. This year’s results will establish a new baseline for the progress we expect students to make over time.”

Parents should not set their expectations too high. Trial testing shows that “many, if not most, of the students will need to make significant progress to reach the standards set for math and literacy,” according to the Department of Education.

Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, said earlier this year that scores should rise over time as teachers and students are more prepared. He has urged patience, saying it will take until about 2019 before the success of the new standards truly can be determined.

That leaves parents wondering what they should take from this year’s test scores. “When we get scores, do we take it to heart if my child didn’t do great?” asked Folsom Hills parent Tracy Kraakevik. “Do we think about tutoring? If it’s reflective of something, I need to help them.”

Folsom Hills officials have tried to make parents feel more comfortable by inviting them to help with practice testing during the pilot program. Many school districts have reassured parents at evening meetings and by posting information and links to sample tests on their websites.

But parents still have questions and concerns.

Kraakevik does not like that a practice test asks students to draw a line using the computer, which requires students to click on a laptop mouse pad and drag. “My child may know the answer,” she said, “but dragging a line could take time from the test if they have to think about it.”

Folsom Hills PTA Treasurer Kelly Mihelich wondered whether the test would require “labels” and “simplification” like other tests at the school. Mihelich said her daughter has hurt her score on past tests by forgetting to simplify fractions or add a label to the sum of a math question. For example, the correct answer to 5 bananas plus 5 bananas would be 10 bananas rather than just 10.

On test days, Mihelich said she walks her daughter Hannah to school repeating, “Simplify. Label. Simplify. Label.”

Despite their concerns, both mothers said they are not really worried about the test. “As parents, when we first heard of the change, it was very scary,” Kraakevik said. But, she added, they realized they had no choice and focused on preparing their children.

“This is the way it’s going to be,” she said.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.

Smarter Balanced test dates

Folsom Cordova Unified: March 16 through May 15

Natomas Unified: April 27 to May 29

Sacramento City Unified: March 16 to April 27

Elk Grove Unified: March 2 to June 26

San Juan Unified: April 6 to June 4

Twin Rivers Unified: April 21 to May 29

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