By Lucy Peng
Amidst the flurry of spring Advanced Placement and college admissions exams, a new type of standardized testing has garnered a lot of attention — and worry — from high school juniors. As California transitions to newly implemented Common Core standards, schools have abandoned traditional Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests for new California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) testing.
The overhaul in standardized state testing comes as a response to criticism of the STAR test, which many accuse of only assessing students’ knowledge on a superficial level. Push for greater literacy and critical thinking across content standards have primarily fueled the shift in testing practices.
“It’s an opportunity for students to enhance their critical reading and writing,” said vice principal Clarissa Zapata, who supervised CAASPP’s implementation this school year.
The CAASPP is designed to engage students’ holistic understanding of the presented material and prepare students for twenty-first century, technology-driven education. The shift to digital testing platforms also intends to reduce paper use and be eco-friendly.
Both of the CAASPP’s individual ELA and Mathematics sections are comprised of Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT) and Performance Tasks (PT) components. CAT refers to the multiple choice sections of the exam while PT is an actual classroom-type lesson. “The proctor is going to teach a scripted lesson,” and then students take a test, Zapata said.
Among the most surprising elements of the new state test is the greater emphasis on writing and citing evidence to prove claims. There are considerably fewer multiple choice questions — 44 questions for the English Language Arts (ELA) portion and 38 for the Mathematics sections — which have been redesigned to test students’ understanding of central themes and ideas.
In the English Language Arts portion, students are required to write paragraphs proving or refuting claims made in the text using direct citation of evidence, along with a creative writing assignment and a multi paragraph argumentative essay with focus on prose, poetry, and short stories. The CAT emphasized credibility of sources and understanding of the author’s main ideas.
The mathematics questions on CAASPP are generally more difficult than the previous questions found on the STAR test. The test directs students to apply learned material by solving word problems and dealing with concept-based inquiries. Traditionally, math is seen as completely separate from ELA but the CAASPP blurs that divide by merging equation solving with writing.
“You have to write a paragraph explaining how you would solve a problem. Some students are brilliant at math but they’ve never had to construct a paragraph that explains how they got an answer,” Zapata said. “On the test, there’s tables and charts and you’ll have to type a paragraph that explains the data and your conclusions.”
Integrated into the CAASPP test is the Early Assessment Program (EAP), a system that will use the summative results from the CAASPP Smarter Balanced test to help determine students’ placements in math and English classes at California State Universities and community colleges only. EAP scores are meant to help students waive out of remedial classes and entrance tests if possible.
“It doesn’t hurt students, but can only help them,” Zapata said.
Students have the option of waiving out of taking the CAASPP, which junior Nicole Chavez took advantage.
“I’m not planning to attend a CSU because I don’t think I want to go to college in California. And my parents told me not to take it because they thought it was ridiculous,” she said. “I generally feel like the test is silly because this is how they create the baseline [for student performance] and all of the tests were having issues.”
Most students, however, participated in the testing. “Like other juniors, I really did not want to take the test. Although I knew the test would be beneficial if I decide to go to a CSU or community college, I just couldn’t help but think the test was a waste of time,” said Dung Nguyen, who skipped the last morning of testing to finish a research paper for another class.
“When I was taking the test, it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but sitting for two hours and a half was not my cup of tea,” she said. “To be honest, I enjoyed the zipline problem very much. I thought it was fun to figure out the explanations.”
Aside from content and standards changes, the method in which students take the test is drastically different. Whereas students previously took the STAR test on paper booklets and bubbled in their answers on Scantrons with pencils, the CAASPP is completely digital.
“I’ve been working with staff members to secure website browsers so [students] can’t get on the Internet to search for answers,” Zapata said. “I have also been working with the tech department, looking at chromebooks to make sure they’re ready to go.”
The changes have surprised teachers as well as students. “I think it’s new and anything new can be scary or problematic,” Zapata said. “The performance task is very new and some are a little unsure about it. I think some feel more comfortable because they’ve gone through it once [during last year’s prototype testing].”
Each teacher is responsible for administering the test for one of the three testing days. Their duties include facilitating lesson plans for the PT section, aid with technology and logon issues, and distributing testing codes required for student entry into each of the tests. All teachers have had training opportunities through PowerPoint and one-on-one interactions with other administrators.
Despite the lack of familiarity, teachers have been relatively successful in preparing their students for the new test. Zapata said Michael Lamb, a Pre-Calculus and AP Calculus math teacher whose juniors took a prototype CAASPP exam in the previous year, “has done a good job showing his students what the new common core standards are.”
Although at the high school level, only eleventh grade students will have to participate in CAASPP testing, sophomores are required to take one remaining “old-fashioned” STAR test — the California Standardized Test for Life Science. At the lower levels, third through eighth graders will also be CAASPP testing.