Christine Armario, Associated Press, contributed to this report.
Across California, kids this week are hunkering down over new standardized tests. In the future, these tests will help determine how we decide which schools are good and which aren't. But this year schools and students are getting a break.
The California Board of Education suspended the state's school accountability system on Wednesday for one year to give teachers and students time to adjust to new standardized tests aligned with Common Core standards.
The board voted at a meeting in Sacramento not to produce an Academic Performance Index for the 2014-15 school year. The index uses student results on statewide tests to rank schools and to identify those that need improvement.
School board President Michael Kirst said the state wants to make sure it is measuring student growth, not just baseline performance, on the new Smarter Balanced tests.
"[Things like] college readiness, career and technical education, in order to understand the complex mosaic of a school and not just rely on a single test number," Kirst said.
The changes are hailed by University of Southern California Professor Morgan Polikoff. He says relying only on test scores has pushed some teachers to focus only on test prep.
"It's not clear at all to me that it accurately describes which schools are, you know, doing a good job educating kids and which schools aren't. Right now it's primarily a measure of, you know, what proportion of the kids in the school are affluent," Polikoff said.
California Prepares for Common Core
The Common Core benchmarks adopted by a majority of states around the nation have come under fire in recent years, largely from conservatives who decry them as a federal infringement on school policy. The standards were approved for implementation by individual states, though the U.S. Department of Education encouraged their adoption through initiatives like Race to the Top.
The new tests have angered some parents and teachers across the nation, who say the exams distract from real learning, put added stress on students and staff members, and waste resources, especially in poor districts.
In California, by contrast, the Common Core standards have been largely embraced by district leaders, parents and teacher unions.
Kirst said even if the new test results aren't used on the state index, they will still be reported at the school, district and state level.
"They'll be held accountable to the public," Kirst said.
Several districts, including Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest, requested that this year's assessments not be used for accountability purposes, arguing that students have not had enough time to practice on testing devices and that the new tests could not be reliably compared with the old pencil-and-paper standardized tests that California children took to measure growth.
"We need that next year to look at this issue of growth," said Edgar Zarzueta, LAUSD chief of external affairs.
The Smarter Balanced tests are required to be taken on a computer or tablet. At LAUSD, there were numerous problems when a practice test was administered, including the website crashing and slow connectivity.
Those issues appear to be resolved: The tests are now being administered in 94 Los Angeles schools, and officials said Tuesday there were no major issues.
The tests evaluate students in grades three through eight and 11th grade in Common Core-aligned English-language arts and math.
Delay Gives State More Time to Build New Grading System
Suspending the state's evaluation system means scores in the first year won't be used to take any corrective actions. Numerous parent, teacher and education organizations commented in favor of the delay at Wednesday's meeting.
"We feel that accountability is very important to the public, but it's sensible to delay because the information is not all going to be clear and solid and current, and we need the transition time," said Celia Jaffe, education commissioner of the California State PTA.
The decision to suspend California's school accountability system is also part of a larger effort to develop a new framework using multiple measures to evaluate school performance, rather than a single number tied to a test.
The board voted in favor of moving forward on a Department of Education recommendation to develop a new framework that would replace the one suspended this year.
"I think it reflects the inherent need to take a pause ... as we look at the best way to evaluate a school," board member Kenton Shimozaki said.