This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

Jan. 11

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recommended a huge overhaul in school testing Tuesday, but it is up to the governor and legislators to adopt, modify or implement his proposal. Here is the rationale for the sweeping changes, as laid out in Torlakson's (excerpted) letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature:

"While what we test, how we test, who we test, when we test, and why we test all continue to be subjects of debate, this much is clear: California's system of student assessment has proved to be a powerful tool for improving school accountability and achievement.

"When the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program began more than a decade ago, only one student in three scored proficient or higher. Today, roughly 900,000 more students are reaching the goals we have set for them now than when the STAR Program began. As significant as this progress is, the time has come to remake our state's assessment system. As we do, we must set our sights on a new, more ambitious goal -- creating a system that fosters high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom.


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"The first step in this process is to align our assessments to the new Common Core State Standards, which provide a practical way to prepare our students for the challenges of a constantly changing world, equipping them with the real-world skills they need for college and career ... The ability to engage in critical thinking and solve complex problems cannot be reliably assessed with the kinds of multiple-choice tests that are the centerpiece of our current system.

"The Common Core State Standards ask students to acquire deeper knowledge of the subjects they study and be able to perform more complex tasks using what they have learned. It is critical that we have assessments that measure their progress toward these goals.

"But perhaps even more important, I believe this work provides us with the opportunity to develop new assessments that serve as models for the kind of high-quality teaching and learning necessary for a world-class education.

"The concept is simple but powerful: if our assessments require students to use problem solving and critical thinking skills to perform well, those same skills are much more likely to be taught in our classrooms day in and day out ... Creating a system focused principally on fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills likely means our students will initially find them more difficult. Although they rely less heavily on memorizing specific information than our current assessments, they will require deeper understanding of how to access and apply knowledge and skills to real-world tasks and problems.

"Trade-offs are inevitable in this process. Just as it takes a student longer to write an essay than to choose A, B, C, or D on a multiple-choice answer sheet, designing, administering, and scoring these more complex assessments will take more time, and, inevitably, more money. However, the investment in this form of assessment is an investment in the quality of teaching and learning as well, so the costs are balanced by significant benefits ... We must always be mindful that time spent testing generally comes at the expense of time our students would otherwise have spent gaining the very knowledge and skills that are the goal of education.

"It is noteworthy that many of the countries leading the world in achievement place little or no emphasis on standardized testing .... In the absence of current federal requirements, these recommendations offered in this report would no doubt be substantially different.

"Indeed, the clear failure of No Child Left Behind to meet its objectives should long ago have spurred federal policymakers to re-examine their requirements that every student be tested in English-language arts and mathematics nearly every year. In the absence of federal action, these recommendations strike a balance -- continuing to provide an individual student score each year in the grades and subjects required by federal mandates while providing more thoughtful and flexible alternatives for students in other grades and subjects. There are many factors to consider, especially in California, which serves such a vast and diverse set of students ...."

Do you support the new tests?