State removes 15 years of test results before releasing new scores

Credit: iStockphoto.comCredit: iStockphoto.comUpdate, Aug. 28: The state Department of Education reconsidered its action and began restoring past testing data on Friday. Go here for details and a statement from Bill Ainsworth, director of communications.
California Department of Education officials have repeatedly cautioned against comparing students’ scores on past state standardized tests with forthcoming results on tests aligned with the Common Core standards. The academic standards have changed and the tests are different, making comparisons inaccurate, they and others have warned.
Earlier this month, as the department got ready to send parents the initial student scores on the new tests sometime over the next few weeks, department officials deleted old test results going back more than 15 years from the most accessible part of the department’s website, impeding the public’s ability to make those comparisons.
The department has removed results dating back to 1998 in math and English language arts from DataQuest, the website where it posts education data it collects. That includes the database of the Standardized Testing and Reporting program, known as STAR, which enabled the public to search results by district, school and student subgroups from grades 3 through 12 since 2003.
Currently, the only test score results that remain on the site are those from science and history tests, which have not changed because the state academic standards in those subjects remain the same. For individuals adept with Excel spreadsheets, the data do remain available as downloadable research files, which can be found here.
On Monday, the department said it removed the data in order to comply with the 2013 state law that set the timetable for ending tests measuring performance under the old state standards and starting new Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts aligned with the Common Core. The new tests in California have been named the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP.
“DataQuest is a living, breathing database that we periodically update so that it provides the most relevant information to the public.”– State Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley
The 2013 law, sponsored by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and backed by the State Board of Education, forbids state agencies and local districts from comparing results of the two different tests (see page 6 of Education Code document for precise wording of EdCode 60641(a)(2)). The law says the California Department of Education and local school districts “shall not use a comparison resulting from the scores and results” of the new tests “and the assessment scores and results from assessments that measured previously adopted content standards.”
The law says nothing about whether the old test results should be made available to the public.
On Wednesday, state Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley issued an additional statement saying the education department removed the data to “avoid confusion” regarding the new California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress System.
“DataQuest is a living, breathing database that we periodically update so that it provides the most relevant information to the public,” he wrote. “We removed the STAR test results from DataQuest because we are soon going to put up the CAASPP test results and we want to avoid confusion because the two tests cannot be compared.”
Critics blast the action
Others criticized the move as an overreaction.
“The department did not have to bury the old test results,” said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a Stanford University-based research nonprofit.
Republicans in the Legislature are drafting a letter to Torlakson asking that the data be restored immediately, Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, the Senate minority leader, said Wednesday.
“CDE (the department) is allergic to transparency and anything that might show schools in a bad light,” he said. “It’s important for parents to be able to look back over 10 years to know if there have been patterns of improvement.
Torlakson and other state officials have argued that the Common Core standards are more rigorous and the new online tests, which include more writing and problem-solving questions, are very different from the former pen-and-paper tests, making comparisons inappropriate. They’ve predicted that the initial scores in California will be lower than those on the old tests, which were last given two years ago.
“This is a new test that shouldn’t be compared with the old test,” State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said at a state board meeting earlier this year. “It’s a more difficult test with new standards, and the scoring levels are not as precise as they might appear.”
Kirst said the Smarter Balanced results will simply provide a base for comparison in future years, and schools won’t be held accountable for them for at least two years. Still, Common Core supporters are anxious that the public will blame the new standards and tests if the scores are low.
But that doesn’t excuse denying the public access to past data, said Bill Lucia, CEO and executive director of EdVoice, a Sacramento-based advocacy group. The state department misread the law to justify keeping information from the public, he said, adding, “Apparently the public and parents are too ignorant to understand or dangerous to be trusted with the facts.”
Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a Long Beach-based organization that advocates for English learners and low-income children, agrees that results from the two assessments should not be compared. The anticipated low Smarter Balanced scores, especially for English learners, should serve as a “call for more supports and funding” for Common Core instruction, she said.
“That said,” she added, “the elimination of the (STAR) data keeps us from monitoring the gaps for student subgroups prior to and after the new assessments have been implemented. The exact scores themselves are not as important as being able to see if this new system exacerbates or diminishes the gaps in achievement.”
The database of old scores could yield other insights as well. Comparing, for example, Smarter Balanced scores of low-income students among schools and districts that had similar test scores in the past could indicate which have done better or worse than expected implementing Common Core instruction for those students.
Some partial results of past English language arts and math tests in sources other than DataQuest can still be found by searching the education department’s website. Besides the research data files, the department has not taken down annual press releases summarizing statewide California Standards Tests results; they can be found here and here. And Ed-Data, a separate database, contains rates of proficiency by school and district on the old tests. Ed-Data is a partnership of the department, EdSource and the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team.
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