California Abandons Pencils and Outdated Standards in School Testing

California’s STAR tests, the state’s standardized tests for public school students, are being scrapped after 15 years.

Assembly Bill 484, which replaces the pencil-and-paper, multiple-choice STAR tests with new language and math tests taken on computers and slated to be fully implemented in the spring of 2015, received Governor Jerry Brown’s signature on October 2

The new assessments, called Measurement of Academic Progress and Performance (MAPP), were designed with other states to follow a set of national curriculum standards known as Common Core. These standards call for more in-depth teaching of fewer subjects and emphasize real-world applications of material in an effort to prepare students for college and careers.

Common Core Standards

Since 2010, 45 out of 50 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, which essentially streamline expectations for students and educators across the country.

As you can imagine, not everyone thinks that is such a great idea, but State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson congratulated Governor Jerry Brown for signing AB 484, saying that the legislation will sweep away outdated tests in favor of modern, computer-based assessments that will measure student readiness for the challenges of college and the workplace.

“Faced with the choice of preparing California’s children for the future or continuing to cling to outdated policies of the past, our state’s leaders worked together and made the right choice for our students,” Torlakson said.

Hooray! No more bubbling in on scantron sheets with number two pencils! Goodbye and good riddance.

As a teacher who has watched students do everything from creating heart shapes on their bubble sheets to throwing up all over their tests to falling fast asleep, I welcome the knowledge that California’s 4.7 million public school kids will no longer be subjected to these tests.

But will the move to digital testing really make a difference? Or will these once-a-year tests still be the high stakes tests that determine everything about a child’s future education, instead of being used as one benchmark among many to assess that student? Will they be good, useful tests?

Those questions remain to be answered, but California Governor Jerry Brown has officially ushered in a new test, despite a threat by Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, to withhold federal funds.

The U.S. Department of Education has raised objections to the state’s plan to only pay for the cost to administer either math or English portions of the test in the spring, while the test is in a pilot phase. California schools would not be required to give the other portion.

This directly conflicts with federal law that requires students to be tested in both subjects in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

How Are the New Tests Different?

The new tests will assess students on critical thinking and communication skills through computerized tests that will adjust to each student’s skill level. Thus, a student’s prior responses affect the difficulty of subsequent questions, allowing a far more precise measurement of student skills and knowledge than the former tests.

The tests are only beginning to roll out, and the law paves the way for California to participate in field testing to iron out content and technical glitches.

How Will the New Tests Work?

As noted above, students will take either the English-language arts or math part of the new MAPP tests next spring and the entire test a year later.

“There is no reason to double-test students using outdated, ineffective standards disconnected from what’s taught in the classroom,” Jim Evans, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said in an email.

The new law also keeps this year’s results private, so parents won’t know how their children performed, and the public won’t know how well schools performed. Scores won’t count toward annual school accountability measures.

At the local level, educators have a lot of work ahead of them to carry out the transition, although the bill does allow districts to skip the test entirely if they don’t have enough computers or internet access.

In my California school district, we’ve been having inservice days to get ready for Common Core for the past two years. In general, teachers are excited about the changes, but wary. For one thing, under STAR, the curriculum and the tests were often poorly aligned, making for some very unfair testing. So until we see what these new tests really look like, there will be skepticism.

There are also many educators who disagree strongly with the idea of Common Core: not so much the idea of better, more meaningful tests, but the notion that all U.S. students should be assessed using exactly the same tests.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, can the U.S. education system please stop relying so heavily on tests?

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman5 years ago

I don't know what the Common Core includes.

But I can make a case for 4 X 3 =11.
This statement is true if the base of your number system is 11.

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian5 years ago

There are always causes for concern with these sorts of changes, but computerized testing has already been in place for a while for some standardized tests like the GREs. One thing htat has come up with these methods for more precise testing is ways to game the system. By pacing themselves to put extra emphasis (taking extra time) on the first few questions, students can put themselves in higher brackets of subsequent questions, boosting their scores without actually having any greater aptitude.

There can also be problems with computerized tests in accommodations for students with special needs. You cannot have a braille screen for the blind, and the software may not allow for extra time should there be a legitimate cause for that. I have seen ridiculous omissions like that in modern software, and if the trouble even lasts through the first couple uses before they get things right, those are entire years of testing lost.

Annelies Haussler
liessi Haussler5 years ago

I'm a technical writer (manuals, online help, etc.) so I'm on a keyboard all day long. This might sound weird to some but when I need to think, I grab a writing implement (pen, pencil, etc) and a piece of paper. Somehow, the very act allows me to structure my thoughts better. I don't know if it's because these were my (ancient) tools of childhood learning or because it's easier to mind-map on paper but I'm concerned kids are being restricted through efficiency.

Jane R.
Jane R5 years ago

Kids should be taught how to add, subtract and multiply using only their brains, through grade school. Then in Junior high, high school and college the should be taught how to use a calculator and computer to figure out problems, but also still have tests in math that require them to use their own brains to figure out the answer so they don't forget how.
These days people working as clerks in stores can't even figure out your change without the register telling them how much it is. Everyone should know how to count money and figure out change without a machine telling them. I bet when they go to a restaurant and pay the bill they don't even know if they got the right change back unless they have a calculator with them.

Robert H.
Robert Hamm5 years ago

Why are so many of you whining??? Where in the article fdid it say California was doing away with pencils and paper entirely???? NOWHERE!!! It is strictly for testing. For Chrissakes people. Reading comprehension….

Jacob you are so full of crap its beyond belief………… if the answer is wrong it is wrong. 4x3 NEVER equals 11. Rheoric is ALL you have…..its all you EVER have.

Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin5 years ago

go cali!

Joe Langer
Joe Langer5 years ago

It seems her like people are taking this article as meaning kids are not learning to write with pencil and paper anymore. Just because a test is on a computer doesn't mean they are only learning on a computer. I am in the schools every day. Believe me they do not always get to use calculators, and they are not always on a computer. They do use pencils and paper every day. The statement in this article about throwing out the pencils and paper is hyperbole, not meant to be taken literally.

Karen Chestney

Thank-you for sharing this article. And.....Calif. goes out front again. Question???? If the test adapts to the child's it really Standardized ?

Bill C.
Bill C5 years ago

When the students walk into the real world and that silver spoon means nothing they will find the disservice done to them with they skill level geared to justify 3 x 4 = 11 verses the concept of math.

IMO if you removed calculators from schools 75% would not be able to do functional math nor understand it's concept. Give all a slide rule and se who passes.

Hell you can go to a deli and order 1/3 lb of a product and they can't figure out how to convert it to 0.33.

KathrynElizabet Etier

It would be nice if schools prepare children for college, work situations, and life. And it's as likely as the fat fairy coming down and eradicating cellulite. Having worked in school systems, I have learned that schools teach kids what they need to know to pass state standards tests. That is not enough to get them through life.