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 Students Make Progress on Statewide Tests

Students across the state made significant progress in the second year of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) online tests, with the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards increasing at every grade and in every student group, results released this week show.

In San Diego County, more than 250,000 students took the English language arts and mathematics Smarter Balanced assessments this spring. Nearly six out of 10 of those students met or exceeded standards in English language arts/literacy compared to about five out of 10 students at the state level. On the mathematics assessments, more than four out of 10 San Diego County students met or exceeded standards, compared with just under four out of 10 at the state level.

These online tests, based on California's challenging academic standards, ask students to write clearly, think critically, and solve complex problems, just as they will need to do in college and on the job.

"The higher test scores show that the dedication, hard work, and patience of California's teachers, parents, school employees, and administrators are paying off. Together we are making progress towards upgrading our education system to prepare all students for careers and college in the 21st century," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said.

 "Of course there's more work to do, but our system has momentum. I am confident that business, political and community leaders will join parents and educators to help continue supporting increased standards and resources for schools."

More than 3.2 million students took part in CAASPP, which includes a number of different assessments. The most widely tested are the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments in mathematics and English language arts/literacy, which are given in grades three through eight and grade 11.

Preliminary figures indicate that less than 1 percent of eligible California students did not take part in the assessment due to a parental exemption, a figure far lower than in many other states.

"This low rate of parental exemption indicates that our parents and students see the value of measuring the skills of all students against the same standards the same way, using one common yardstick, and one shared goal: learning," Torlakson said.

In addition, he said, it shows a strong commitment to the state's comprehensive program of transforming our schools with higher academic standards, more local control over spending, more funding for those with the greatest needs, and a new system of evaluating schools and districts.

"These positive results are based on a new college and career readiness assessment that is online, and expects students to demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving skills unlike the old, multiple choice tests they replace," said State Board of Education President Mike Kirst.

Smarter Balanced tests consist of two parts. First, students take a computer adaptive assessment, which bases follow-up questions on a student's answers in real time and gives a more accurate picture of a student's progress than the paper and pencil test.

Here's how it works: If a student answers a question correctly, she gets a more difficult question. If she answers it incorrectly, she gets an easier question.

Students also complete a performance task that challenges their ability to apply their knowledge and skills to problems in a real-world setting. The two parts measure depth of understanding, writing, research and problem-solving skills more thoroughly than the multiple-choice, paper-based tests they replaced.

Scores on the assessments fall into one of four achievement levels: standard exceeded, standard met, standard nearly met, and standard not met. The state also computes the average scores of all tested students, called mean scale scores, which reflects the progress of all students rather than only those who changed achievement levels from one year to the next.

This year average scale scores rose statewide. Statewide in all tested grades, 49 percent of students met or exceeded the English language arts/literacy standard, an increase of 5 percentage points from last year. In mathematics, 37 percent of students met or exceeded standards, also an increase of 4 percentage points from last year.

In English language arts/literacy, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards increased by at least 4 percentage points in all grades except grades 8 and 11, which increased by 3 points.

In mathematics, the largest gains were seen among 3rd-graders, with 46 percent meeting or exceeding standards, an increase of 6 points from last year. Other grades posted gains of 2 or 3 percentage points.

California State Universities and many community colleges consider high marks on these tests for 11th-grade students as a reliable sign of readiness for college-level work. This year's results indicate 59 percent of grade 11 students are ready or conditionally ready for college work in English language arts, with 33 percent ready or conditionally ready for college work in mathematics.

Torlakson said a number of factors may have helped scores rise this year, including an extra year of teaching the California state standards in English and math, more familiarity with taking an online test, continued improvements in technology, and the use of interim tests, he said.

Torlakson noted that schools are still working to make the transition to new standards and assessments, and said patience and persistence will contribute to the ongoing effort to improve California's schools.

One concern remains with the continuing achievement gap, with significantly lower scores among students from low-income families, English learners and some ethnic groups compared to other students.

Statewide scores for all student groups rose in both subjects tested. For example, average scores for Latino students in English language arts increased 5 percent, while scores for African Americans and Whites rose 3 percent.

But the achievement gap continues with just 37 percent of Latinos and 31 percent of African American students meeting or exceeding standards in English language arts compared with 64 percent of White students.

"The achievement gap is pernicious and persistent and we all need to work together to find solutions that help all groups rise, while narrowing the gap," said Torlakson, who has proposed an office within the California Department of Education devoted to coordinating and promoting efforts to address the achievement gap.

Individual student scores are reported to parents by mail. In addition, California provides a dedicated Web site, http://caaspp.cde.ca.gov, where parents and the public can view and compare aggregated results among schools, districts, and counties along with statewide results.

The California Department of Education provides a wide range of tools to help parents, teachers and schools understand and use CAASPP results.

These resources include http://testscoreguide.org, a new Web site that provides parents with grade-by-grade, subject-by-subject information at all levels of achievement; detailed online guides for parents and teachers to use in analyzing results; and practice tests at every grade level in English.