SPI Torlakson suggests districts assume role in some statewide testing

A white paper on the future of K-12 testing in California public schools suggests some lower stakes assessments could be managed by local educational agencies instead of the state as a means of saving money.

The report, issued late last week from state schools chief Tom Torlakson, proposed the efficiency in light of coming national assessments that will calibrate student performance year to year, and could also be administered using new computer systems - both ideas that pose significant increases to the state's current testing budget.

Although Torlakson is required to make recommendations to the Legislature on reauthorizing the statewide testing system this Nov. 1 - the testing report seeks only to frame the debate, raising a number of policy questions but, while providing some answers, stops short of mapping a clear path.

The report was released as part of an agenda item coming before the California State Board of Education next week, where the discussion is expected to inform and direct the coming recommendations to lawmakers.

For a number of reasons, Torlakson and the Brown administration will likely take their time considering the next steps in retooling the state's assessment program.

The current system was originally designed in the mid-1990s with an update in 2001 to accommodate adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The centerpiece of the existing system, the Standardized Testing and Reporting system, is set to expire in July, 2014.

New assessments based on the common core curriculum standards are being developed by national consortia, in one of which - SMARTER Balanced - California is a governing member. Those tests are expected to become available by 2014-15.

The new common core assessments, which will include computer-adaptive formats, are expected to be much more expensive to apply and score. And, given the state coffers are expected to remain restricted for some years to come, Gov. Jerry Brown has been leery about committing to the new testing system.

Also casting a shadow over the testing question is Congress and efforts to reauthorize NCLB. There is some expectation that no matter who wins the White House in November, a revision of the federal education law is likely to come in the next two years and could include new assessment mandates.

Still, Torlakson's memo does suggest some preferences for where California should go.

For one, there are strong arguments for replacing the existing STAR program in the context of instruction that is now based on the common core.

"Before determining what California assessments should do, it's important to understand what a test, by itself, does not do," the Torlakson report says. "It does not measure how much more a student has learned from year-to-year (although that is often presumed). And it cannot, by itself, say how good a school or district is doing in educating its students (although we do use the results in this way)."

Torlakson assumes that the next generation of testing must allow for the state to "determine how much progress a student, or a group of students, is making from year to year." The new testing should also "measure in greater depth just how much students know," relying less on "specific facts learned and more on tasks that require complex cognitive processes, such as analysis and evaluation."

But such a system, he notes, will come with a far higher price in terms of time that it will take students to complete the exams and for evaluators to conduct a proper review.

To help cut down on costs, the superintendent said the state should explore the idea of eliminating some elements of the current system that are redundant - the high school exit exam, for instance, duplicates some of the same measurements conducted through the STAR program.

But a more dramatic proposal would be for the state to relinquish control of parts of the current system for administration and scoring on the local level.

"Lower stakes assessments that are locally reproduced, scored, and reported can greatly reduce the cost of assessment," the report said. "For example, security and reliability costs would likely be less than they are currently. However, the results could still be appropriate for the purpose of adequately and fairly evaluating student performance."

Torlakson notes that locally controlled testing might also offer new professional development opportunities for teachers.