SACRAMENTO -- California's schools chief on Tuesday called for sweeping changes in the standardized tests that measure student achievement, dispensing for the most part with multiple choice questions in favor of more rigorous, thought-provoking exams.
As part of an overhaul of the state's curriculum standards, the STAR tests familiar to every parent and student would be transformed in two years with requirements for in-depth essays and projects that students will complete on computers. The changes proposed by state Superintendent Tom Torlakson go far beyond the tests themselves, impacting how teachers teach and how students learn.
While Torlakson's proposal must be approved by the governor and Legislature, it is almost certain to be adopted in some form. It aligns the state's instruction and testing with a recently-adopted set of Common Core State Standards for curriculum that are being phased in now by some school districts, with required implementation by 2014-15. Those standards seek to deepen learning by, for example, requiring students to read informational texts as well as fiction and dig deeper into mathematical concepts as well as memorizing tables.
"Multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests alone simply cannot do the job anymore, and 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," said Torlakson, a former teacher in East Bay
California's Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, tests are administered to every public school student beginning in the second grade. The test results are used to rank the state's schools, determining which ones need to bolster their instruction and, in some cases, which ones will get extra money or need different leadership to perform better. But the multiple-choice-only tests have long been criticized for forcing teachers to focus on dull lesson plans heavy on rote memorization.
In response to the new Common Core standards, some teachers are already changing the ways they present lessons by asking more open-ended questions that encourage students to think for themselves. The revised tests are the next step.
Todd Gaviglio, principal of Spangler Elementary in Milpitas, welcomed both the revised curriculum and the new testing regimen.
"It will be hugely better than what we have," he said. Gaviglio said the new curriculum allows teachers to cover subjects in greater depth rather than glossing over some skills because they
But clearly change will be hard.
Guy Moore, president of the teachers' union in Contra Costa County's Mt. Diablo school district, said he supports the concept of diving deeper into subjects instead of glossing over the surface but worries that teachers haven't been given enough information about how the tests are expected to change their classroom instruction.
"Right now, it's all a big question mark in terms of what it's going to mean," he said. "I wonder what's behind taking this huge leap when we don't have funds. To say the tests are going to happen in two years and everybody's got to jump through all these hoops, it's putting a lot of anxiety on teachers."
Torlakson's other recommendations include:
The state should no longer reward rote memorization of facts, said David Rattray, senior vice president of Education and Workforce Development for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
"We're moving toward a time when students are going to be assessed on whether they understand what's being taught," he said.
To see the complete report: "Recommendations for Transitioning California to a Future Assessment System," by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, go to www.cde.ca.gov. Click on "New Statewide Testing System."
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