Mandatory Standardized Testing Resumes

By: Jeff Nazzaro

With California K-12 students finally resettled in their various classrooms for in-person learning, the state is also resuming mandatory standardized testing. The computer-based tests and performance tasks, administered to third through eighth and 11th graders each spring, were put on temporary hiatus in 2020 in line with statewide primary and secondary school campus closures; the tests were then made optional by district the following year, and fewer than a quarter of the state’s 3.1 million students in the mandated grades ended up participating.

Though reflecting a relatively small sample size, those 2021 test results proved to be disastrous. The overall scores were particularly disappointing to state educators and administrators who had helped California students achieve five years of gradual but meaningful improvement following the switch in 2013 from the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) system to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) system.

“…2021 test results proved to be disastrous.”

The CAASPP system uses what are called Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments, which were specifically reworked to measure student progress in meeting the new Common Core standards put in place by the state in 2010. One year away due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related halt to in-person learning and standardized testing, however, and the half a decade of steadily elevating scores was wiped out. And then some.

After rising in 2019 to a 52.2 percent pass rate (scores meeting or exceeding statewide standards) in English language arts/literacy (ELA), California students regressed to 48.9 percent last year. The 2019 38.2 percent success rate in mathematics dipped to 33.6 percent. Overall, scores were down by six percentage points in ELA and 12 in math, with scores of low-income students falling by 10 percent in language arts and 21 percent in math.

"After rising in 2019 to a 52.2% pass rate in ELA, students regressed to 48.9% last year."

The big question now is whether scores will trend back upwards or if the reversals will continue. The switch from in-person to online learning is, of course, the main culprit implicated in the decline. Educators throughout the state have commented on the increased difficulty they experienced in not only teaching to students (especially elementary school students) the basic skills crucial to success on the standardized tests but also just having students in class at all. This was particularly concerning for low-income students, with decreased online school attendance, particularly among younger students, deemed a major factor in the decline in test scores within that group.

“Will scores trend back upwards or will reversals continue?”

While overall four-year graduation rates statewide dipped slightly in 2021, the lower standardized test scores for elementary students could have serious long-term negative effects on school success rates. In fact, within the overall drop in Smarter Balanced results, students in elementary grades contributed at much more alarming rates. On the math portion of the test in 2021, for example, third-grade scores went down by 20.1 percent, fourth graders cumulatively lost 21.5 percent, and fifth graders lost 22.1 percent off their 2019 scores. Meanwhile, in middle school, seventh graders were down a less drastic 10.1 percent on the math test, and high school juniors showed an improvement of 5.3 percent.

In addition to the drops in ELA and math scores, state and federally mandated English-language proficiency testing for students who speak a different language at home revealed lower scores, as well. At around 1.1 million students, English-language learners comprise close to 20 percent of all California K-12 learners. As with the quality of distance education as a whole, particularly for younger students, many educators believe English-language learning took a significant hit during the worst of the pandemic.

“…English-language learning took a significant hit during the pandemic.”

Now, as full-time standardized testing resumes, it remains to be seen how telling the limited 2021 results are. On the one hand, the California State Board of Education believes those results can be favorably compared to those from 2019 and upcoming results from this year. Some feel that results will improve given closer to 100 percent testing participation following a return to in-person instruction. Others, however, wonder if missing from the 2021 data were significant results from low-income students. A return to full statewide participation could then result in an even larger short-term drop and indicate more significant long-term ramifications.

We shall soon find out. The tests are back in town.