The paper-and-pencil math and English exams that California students take each spring would be replaced with computer-based tests designed to assess problem-solving skills under a proposal Tuesday by state schools chief Tom Torlakson.
Outlined in a dozen recommendations, the new exams would be rolled out in the 2014-15 academic year, coinciding with the implementation of a national curriculum known as the Common Core State Standards. The plan - already the target of criticism by the leader of the Los Angeles Unified School District - must first be approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Unlike the California Standards Tests, which have been given since 1999 and use multiple-choice questions to gauge students' knowledge of specific content, the new tests would help determine whether students are learning the critical-thinking skills that are at the heart of Common Core.
"Multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests alone simply cannot do the job anymore," Torlakson said. "It's time for California to move forward with assessments that measure the real-world skills our students need to be ready for a career and for college."
Although the new testing system, if approved, won't be in place until 2014-15, a select group of students and teachers in Torrance Unified will begin taking the exams on a trial basis this spring.
Seven Torrance schools have been selected by a multistate consortium (called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) to participate in the pilot.
Tim Stowe, a high-level administrator in the Torrance district, declined to identify the schools, but said they represent a mix of elementary, middle and high schools.
"This will give us a little better idea of what this is going to look like," he said.
In any case, the selected students from those schools will take two sets of standardized tests this spring: the fill-in-the-bubble exams that have long characterized the STAR testing program, and the new ones taken by computer.
Computer-based tests could be given periodically, as well as at year's end, allowing teachers to see within six weeks which lessons their students have mastered and which skills they need to improve.
"This will drive better learning for individual students," Torlakson said. "With better individual results, teachers can move forward with their class."
But the plan raised immediate concerns with Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, who said he was "blindsided" by the report, which was released to the state's education leaders just as Torlakson began his telephone briefing with reporters.
Deasy objected strenuously to the state's plan to suspend most standardized tests in 2013-14 to give districts time to implement the new system.
That lapse, Deasy said, would prevent English-learners in ninth and 10th grades from taking the tests they need to be reclassified as "proficient" in English - a prerequisite for many of the classes they need to graduate from high school.
"I see this as a fundamental civil rights issue, and the reclassification of our English-learners is in peril," said Deasy, adding that other districts with high numbers of English-learners would also be affected.
However, California Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman discounted Deasy's concerns, saying districts could use classroom grades, the California High School Exit Exam and other academic measures to reclassify their English-learners.
"Districts have always been encouraged to look at an array of academic indicators," Sigman said.
Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino, who is spearheading LAUSD's implementation of Common Core, also objected to the state's plan to allow districts to give paper-and-pencil tests if they don't have the technology in place for the computer-based version.
The new focus will favor critical thinking and problem solving over rote memorization and multiple-choice bubbling.
For example, in a sample question offered online, a fifth-grade math test under the new format shows the finish times of five competitive swimmers. Their times are rounded to the nearest hundredth. The question says: "Explain how the results of the race would change if the race used a clock that rounded to the nearest tenth." The answer - which must be written, not selected from a list of multiple choices - is that rounding to the nearest tenth would make it appear that the first- and second-place finishers have tied. A similar test under the current system would simply ask kids to round to the nearest tenth, said Carolyn Seaton, spokeswoman for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District.
"This is testing students' higher-order thinking skills," she said. "They have to know how to round, and they have to clarify their thinking in writing, and be able to explain how the race would change."
The high-tech tests will be more rigorous, Aquino said, and will adapt to the answers given by the student. A correct answer will then trigger a tougher problem, while a wrong response will generate an easier question.
While Aquino expressed concern about comparing schools or districts that use different versions of the test, Sigman said those variables will be taken into account as the exams are being developed.
The new state testing system - like Common Core itself - requires school districts to have upgraded computer infrastructure, along with computers for students.
Torlakson said the state has been "urging" school districts to invest in the necessary technology, and that a recent survey found an average of one computer for every three students.
That should be sufficient, he said, for districts to conduct the new tests, especially since there will be a 12-week window for administering the exams.
Some local officials expressed concern about their existing equipment and finding the money to upgrade their systems.
"It's bizarre to me that the state is mandating computer-based learning and computer-based testing without providing cash-strapped districts with the money to buy the technology or train the teachers," said Los Angeles Unified board member Tamar Galatzan.
Galatzan orchestrated a move by Los Angeles Unified to divert nearly $100 million in bond revenue to upgrade the computer networks at 138 campuses.
Deasy's plan to use bond revenue to buy computer tablets for all 600,000-plus students has been squelched because of legal concerns, although the proposal is expected to resurface.
Paul Hefner, a spokesman for Torlakson, said the schools chief supports the use of bond revenue to buy technology. He added that Torkalson hopes to put a bond measure on the state ballot in 2014 that would generate matching funds that districts could use to upgrade their computer systems.
California is among 45 states and three territories that have adopted Common Core for mathematics and English-language arts.
It's also on the board of the Smarter Balanced Assessments Consortium, one of two multistate groups working on tests for the Common Core. That means the tests eventually developed for California will also be given to students in the two dozen other Smarter Balanced states.