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Letters from Superintendent Michael Soltman regarding state standards and upcoming tests

Posted 3/26/15

What are Common Core State Standards?

Common Core State Standards are a set of expectations for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts at each grade level.  The standards, now adopted by 46 states, were created by K-12 and higher education experts across the country to ensure that all students, regardless of location or background, acquire a strong, shared foundation in math and English. The new standards, regarded as much more rigorous than Washington State’s essential learning standards adopted in the mid-90s, reflect what students will need to know to be college and career ready.  A recent editorial in the Seattle Times  provides a clear rationale for the benefits of the common core in our state.

What does college and career ready mean?

Being “college ready” means that a high school graduate has the knowledge and  skills necessary to qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college  courses without the need for remedial coursework. 

Being “career ready” means that a high school graduate has the knowledge and  skills needed to qualify and succeed in postsecondary job training and/or education  necessary for their chosen career: community college, technical/vocational programs, apprenticeship or significant on-the-job training. 

Ultimately, college and career readiness demands that students know more than  just content, but demonstrate that they know how to learn and build upon that content to solve problems and think critically.

How do the Smarter Balanced assessments more accurately measure being college and career ready?

The new assessments emphasize how students apply the math and English they are learning to real world problems and rely less on memorization of facts. Taken entirely on the computer (except for 3rd grade this first year), Smarter Balanced exams are interactive and responsive to a student’s responses. Questions become harder or easier based on performance.

Students will be asked to explain their reasoning, show their work and some  questions will have more than one correct response. Students will be writing more, asked to think critically and defend their ideas. It won’t be possible to just skim and answer questions, the new assessments call for careful reading and providing evidence from that reading to support their answer. 

The objective of the test is to adapt to each student’s ability, giving teachers and  parents better information to help students succeed and graduate ready for college or career preparation.

You can experience some sample test items and performance talks by clicking here.  

The March 14, 2015 edition of The Seattle Times ran a story (Tough new exams state test students’ math, reading skills, by Leah Todd) about the new  Balanced assessments that provides another perspective. Click here to read the story.  

How do the Smarter Balanced assessments create a personalized pathway for students to be college ready?

The Common Core standards help ensure students are college- and career-ready.  The Smarter Balanced assessments help teachers and parents measure a student’s progress toward that goal. This timely information can help inform the student’s High School & Beyond Plan, which is designed to bring parents/guardians, educators, and students together to develop the student’s personalized pathway toward college- and career-readiness. Each student maintains a plan that outlines education and career goals, and the courses, exams, and experiences necessary to get them there.

If you are interested in more information about state testing and graduation requirements, click here.  

Posted March 13, 2015

Dear Parents,

The national and local conversation about upcoming testing requires some simple explanations about what’s really up.  Below I’ll answer some questions as simply and briefly as possible, and then invite your additional questions for further clarification.  Here we go…

A little history please…

Annual testing is not new and has been required as long as I can remember (I’m 61!) so that districts/parents could monitor individual student progress, and use the school/district level data for school improvement planning.  The current school reform movement started in 1993 when the Washington legislature passed an education reform bill (HB 1209) which initiated the development of statewide uniform standards and a test (remember the WASL) to measure student progress against the standards.   A few years later the legislature and state board of education also required students to pass the high school level tests as a graduation requirement.

In 2001 Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ushering in the age of school accountability in order to receive federal funding.  NCLB, now broadly recognized as a failed federal education policy, required all schools/districts in the country to ensure that 100% of the students passed the state tests by 2014, and meeting benchmarks in the years along the way.  Congress can’t agree on how to change this law, but the Federal Dept. of Education has granted alternate accountability waivers to 49 states, except Washington….but that’s a conversation for another time….

What are the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessments?

In 2011 Washington joined 45 other states in replacing our state standards with the Common Core State Standards.  These standards are largely recognized as the clearest student learning targets we have seen since reform began in 1993.  They are a good thing...

Washington State also joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium with about 22 other states to develop a new test (referred to as the SBAC) to measure student achievement of the Common Core Standards.  This spring, implementation of this new test replaces our current state tests at grades 3 through 8 and grade 11.  The new test format will be computer-based and more interactive (individually adjusting the difficulty of items based upon a student’s answers); students will be writing more and asked to think critically and defend their answers.  We anticipate good information from this test about individual student progress on the core standards and school level information that will help us plan effective instruction.

If you’d like to gain familiarity with the software platform and questioning style, we encourage you to take a practice test at ; (Note that our 3rd grade students will continue to take a paper/pencil exam for this one year and transition to the computer-based format next year)

How is the SBAC different than the test students took last year?

The SBAC offers significant shifts from previous state tests, including: writing at every grade level, new question types, and performance tasks that ask students to demonstrate an array of research, writing and problem-solving skills involving critical thinking.   Students will take the test online via computer instead of paper/pencil (except in 3rd grade this year).  Interestingly, the SBAC uses adaptive technology that individualizes test items based upon each student’s responses so that the student is challenged, but not frustrated by the difficulty of items.

When will the SBAC testing take place in our district this spring?

Within the next two weeks principals will email parents and post testing schedule information on the school websites.  As always, principals are building test schedules to minimize disruption to regular instruction as much as possible.

How are students prepared for the test?

We do not focus on test preparation.  We do focus on teaching to the standards and targets all year long with the intent that such instruction will prepare students to perform well on the test.  As this is a new test implementation this year, we have requested that teachers expose students to one practice subtest so that they can be familiar with the questioning style and the online computer format.

When will schools and parents receive results?

Previously we did not receive results until late August or September, too late to utilize them for any meaningful planning.  SBAC is administered online making it possible for teachers and parents to receive results before the end of this school year.  We look forward to being able to use the results in our planning for next year during this summer.

What can we expect from the results?

It has not been uncommon in other states for schools and students to experience an “implementation dip” and have lower scores in the first year of the test.   The standards and the test are both new and we expect that it will take a few years for our scores to fully reflect our students’ learning.  However, we encourage our faculty, parents and students to view this year as a pilot year and a learning experience.  Students should try their best, but realize that this year is a lot about becoming familiar with the new test and the new standards.  Click here for national score distributions of the SBAC field tests.

How will the test results be used?

Parents/teachers will be provided a report of how their students performed against the standards.  Schools will use the results to review the growth of various groups of students and to consider adjustments in instructional practices to ensure that all students are growing in their learning.  For example, at Chautauqua, if a student scores below grade level in reading it will lead to a review with the parent(s) of home and school strategies to support growth in reading.  High school students will need to pass the SBAC and other tests to meet state graduation requirements

State and federal policy makers will continue to use test data as a “high stakes” measure of school effectiveness –  a policy with which I strongly disagree -  and a conversation for our state and federal legislators.

What are other ways the test results are used?

Under a new agreement with our state colleges, technical schools and universities, high school students who score at standard or above will automatically be placed in college-level math and English courses without the need for placement tests. 

Does my child have to take the test?

It is expected that all students will take the test and important that they do.  While we measure the classroom performance of our students in teacher-based assessments every day, this standardized test is our district’s only means of analyzing how all of our students achieve against a common standard.  We want to know how we perform, and how we can improve instruction for our students. 

Parents do have the right to “opt out” or refuse testing for their student. Students who do not take the test are not removed from the data, rather, their scores are entered as a “0” as the data are compiled, distorting our ability to make meaning of the school-wide results.  Frankly, it would be a waste of our time and resources to proctor tests and then have incomplete results to inform our teaching and instruction. 

If you have concerns about your child participating, I’m requesting that you consult with your school principal prior to making any decision about refusing to participate.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  If you are interested in more information about state testing and graduation requirements, click here.  I consider this the beginning of our conversation and look forward to providing a deeper understanding of the philosophy behind the common core and assessment in our district.  If you have additional questions, please email me and I’ll respond in another FYI to all parents.  I’ll also post this on our website.  I appreciate the conversation.

Best regards,

Michael Soltman