New tests focus on what our students really need to learn

A teacher helps a student at Sheridan Elementary School take an online reading exam on an iPad last month. California students will start taking computer-based standardized tests this week.
A teacher helps a student at Sheridan Elementary School take an online reading exam on an iPad last month. California students will start taking computer-based standardized tests this week.

If a career in teaching and coaching has taught me anything, it’s that students can do a lot more than you might think. Get motivated students to the starting line, give them a chance to prove themselves and amazing things can happen.

It’s no different in the classroom. And right now, exciting changes are taking place inside California’s schools. Along with reading to follow a story, students are learning to read to cite evidence and draw logical conclusions. They are learning to use math to solve real-world problems, rather than merely to pick out the right multiple-choice answer.

We have a long way to go. But gradually, we’re providing more support for teachers, more resources for students and more access to technology – all part of California’s comprehensive plan for high-quality teaching and learning in every school.

Because what we want students to know and be able to do have changed, our tests are changing as well. This month, beginning as early as Tuesday, more than 3 million students will take part in the first statewide administration of the new California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress for students in third through eighth grades and 11th grade.

The tests are an academic checkup, designed to give teachers some of the feedback they need to improve instruction. These computer-based exams will replace the former paper-based, multiple-choice assessments in English-language arts and mathematics. They use adaptive technology to provide more accurate information about individual student performance. And because the tests are taken online, results will be available more quickly to teachers, schools and school districts so the information can be used to help students learn.

Like the new academic standards, the new tests are too fundamentally different from the old exams to make any reliable comparisons between old scores and new. In many cases, new textbooks and materials have only recently arrived at schools. That’s why this year’s test results will only establish a baseline for the progress we expect students to make over time.

Based on trial runs of some test questions in California and other states, many if not most students will need to make significant progress to reach the standards set for math and reading that accompany college and career readiness.

But no student, parent or teacher should be discouraged by the scores, which will never be used to determine whether a student moves on to the next grade. Rather, the results will provide an opportunity to focus on the needs of students and support teachers and schools in their work.

California’s new assessment system represents the next step in our comprehensive plan to promote high-quality teaching and learning. This plan recognizes that assessments can play a role in promoting high-quality instruction.

Teachers in California support these changes because, unlike in other states, the primary purpose of testing here is to support learning, not to impose consequences. This approach fits well with our new system for funding schools, which recognizes that decisions about education dollars are best made by parents, teachers and communities themselves.

In a state as diverse and complex as California, adjustments will always be needed to make lasting progress. Patience and persistence will be required to help our schools continue to succeed during this time of transition.

The changes we have begun are focused on helping students succeed in the long run, achieving their dreams of college and a career. While this spring’s tests are just one measure of their progress, let’s support them as they take their place on the starting line and begin the challenging journey to their future.

Tom Torlakson is in his second term as state superintendent of public instruction.