Steven E. Gomes: New tests will take some getting used to for students, teachers

The state-mandated testing for grades 3 through 11 is dramatically different from years past, writes Merced County Superintendent of Schools Stephen E. Gomes.
The state-mandated testing for grades 3 through 11 is dramatically different from years past, writes Merced County Superintendent of Schools Stephen E. Gomes. Merced Sun-Star file

What if you went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take the multiple-choice test and the test was no longer given as multiple choice?

Instead, you were asked questions like, “It is said that people should be defensive drivers. Cite three examples of driving defensively.” Or “What adjustments should you make and be aware of when driving on a roadway covered with two inches of snow?” Then, you were asked to write justifications for each of your answers.

I suspect you would have to study the DMV manual in a completely different way if you wanted to answer those types of questions. The percentage of people who would pass such a test would very likely drop dramatically.

This metaphor closely illustrates the new mandated testing in California for grades three through 11. Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) became the new student assessment system, replacing the STAR tests (Standardized Testing and Reporting). The results of the first CAASPP testing, in the spring of 2015, recently became public, and I would like to share some insight about the results.

First, the CAASPP tests, based on the new state standards for English language arts and mathematics, are fundamentally different from the previous state tests. No reliable comparisons between prior scores and new scores can be made. For this reason, this year’s CAASPP scores are better thought of as a starting point – a baseline from which we can judge the progress students are expected to make over time.

Second, it is important to remember that from 2008 to 2014, Merced County school districts were operating with a reduction of more than $1,000 per student. In 2014, the state was able to fund schools at the level at which they had been funded in 2008.

These funding levels are necessary to maintain lower class sizes, provide adequate professional development for teachers to support all students in learning and to help them learn how to teach the new state standards. It also funds the necessary support services teachers need to be effective in the classroom.

Given these factors, educators worked hard but knew that on average students would not perform well on the CAASPP.

Third, I do not offer excuses for the fact that just 32 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level standards in English language arts and only about 20 percent in mathematics. Rather, I want parents and the public to understand the challenge with which the county’s educators are tasked. It’s a challenge we accept because we know that, over time, it will improve students’ college and career readiness.

K-12 education in Merced County and throughout the state is in transition, incorporating newer teaching methods and student academic success criteria. The CAASPP results will serve as a road map for teachers and school administrators to follow as they focus on the needs of Merced County students. The goal is to prepare students for college or career readiness.

The DMV will continue to use a multiple-choice test, but as 21st-century educators, we are going to use an assessment that measures a student’s depth of knowledge because today’s society requires citizens to think critically and creatively, and then to communicate and collaborate with others.

Finally, I would like to share some high points of the assessment. The CAASPP, in both content areas, is broken down into smaller components known as claims. On each of the claims listed on the accompanying chart, our students did well.

Steven E. Gomes is Merced County superintendent of schools.

Performing at grade level

On average, students in grades 3 through 11 who performed at or above grade level in English language arts:

  • Reading: 56 percent demonstrated an understanding of literary and nonfiction texts
  • Writing: 60 percent demonstrated the skills to produce clear, purposeful writing
  • Listening: 71 percent demonstrated effective skills
  • Research/inquiry: 70 percent demonstrated skills, including investigating, analyzing, and presenting information

On average, students in grades 3-11 who performed at or above grade level in each area in mathematics:

  • Concepts and procedures: 39 percent could apply concepts and procedures
  • Problem solving and modeling/Data analysis: 51 percent could use appropriate tools and strategies
  • Communicating reasoning: 58 percent could support mathematical conclusions