Calif. and U.S. in standoff over a science test

California, like Maryland and Illinois, has adopted new learning standards in science known as the Next Generation Science Standards.

States administer science tests, according to the requirements of a federal law known as No Child Left Behind and now under the Every Student Succeeds Act, to students once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. The science tests before the adoption of the NGSS by the respective state boards of education didn’t test how well students had learned what is in the NGSS but rather tested how well students had learned what was in the state’s official learning standards prior to official moves in each state to adopt the NGSS.

When the NGSS was adopted, what students were required to learn changed. The former tests aren’t any good for the standards that are in effect. But the law requires that a science test that counts—for federal and state accountability purposes—be given once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Schools are also under a lot of pressure, from President Barack Obama to parent groups, to reduce the amount of testing in which students are required to participate. Not all of this is state-mandated testing—the bulk of it is actually classroom testing—but state-mandated tests make all the news headlines.

In order to make a test count, the questions on that test have to be good. The only way to determine whether a given question can be counted on reliably to test how well students understand the material the question purports to assess is by field testing the question: it is given to a range of students in the state and if they answer the question at rates that are about what one would expect, the question qualifies to be used on a test for accountability purposes in the future.

What most states do is embed field-test questions within the regular test. For example, on a science test for fifth grade, there might be a total of 80 questions, with 15 of those being field-test questions. The other 65 are questions that count toward the student’s score and can be relied upon for federal and state accountability purposes, because they were field tested on a previous test and found to be good questions.

Now comes California to request permission from the US Department of Education to give students in elementary school, middle school, and high school a science test that is made up entirely of field-test questions. That is, none of the questions will count and can’t be used for accountability purposes under federal law. California isn’t asking to break the law, because they’re still giving students a science test, just to waive the requirement that students be held accountable for their performance on the test.

And it only makes sense since California doesn’t know yet which questions on the new test, aligned to newly-adopted standards in science, are any good.

But the US Department of Education said last month that California can’t administer just a test without any questions that count. In other words, they want the state to do what it has done for several years on the old test: scatter field-test questions throughout the current test (or give one field test and one obsolete test).

The problem, from an educational perspective, is that the standards the state now uses are so different from the former standards that the questions that would ordinarily count on the old test don’t address the new standards at all. That is, they’re irrelevant to what is (supposed to be) happening in the state’s classrooms.

Presenting students with a test that has both types of questions on it would cast doubt on the validity of the field test. That’s because the look and feel of questions that measure students’ learning of the NGSS are completely different from the look and feel of questions addressing the state’s last-generation science standards. The effect of switching gears during the students’ taking of the test could potentially be jarring.

Furthermore, it would be a waste of time to analyze how students perform on the old test, since teachers have been told to teach the new standards. That means it would also be a waste of time for students to answer those questions. And all this completely irrelevant testing, the US Department of Education demands, should come at a time when schools are under increasing pressure to reduce the amount of testing.

Officials in California said they’re going to do what’s right anyway, despite what “experts” in the US Department of Education have told them to do. Instead of administering one test without any questions that count and one test with questions that performed well under the obsolete standards, they’re just going to administer a test without any questions that count.

“We need to move on,” EdSource quoted Jessica Barr, an administrator in the California Department of Education’s Assessment Development and Administration Division, as saying at a conference, an announcement that brought resounding cheers from 250 teachers. “We need to transition, and we need to allow teachers themselves to transition to the new standards.”

Maryland would have to request a similar waiver from the US Department of Education if the state plans to administer a complete field test this year. Officials wouldn’t know which questions to use for student accountability, because none of the questions that address the new state standards would have been tried on a test before. So the state will need a waiver of the accountability requirement, if the US Department of Education is so inclined, while still fulfilling the testing requirement in science.

Illinois got into some hot water from the US Department of Education when the state cancelled its old science test one year. The situation in Illinois wasn’t exactly parallel to that in California or Maryland, though, since a new test wasn’t ready when the state cancelled the one it had. On the one hand, the old test was just as irrelevant as it is now in California and Maryland; on the other hand, the state failed to comply with the requirement that a test be given.

California—and Maryland soon—ask only that all questions on the test they do give be considered field-test questions. Both states still have every intention of giving a science test this year to one grade level in elementary school, etc., in compliance with that part of the law.

To force the states to do some magic with numbers in order to make those tests count, before they know if the questions are any good, is illogical, and the mathematics involved in doing that wouldn’t take into account the quality of the questions themselves and might reduce the reliability of the performance data and impair the states’ ability to decide whether those questions should count on a test in the future.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.