Fill-in-the-bubble tests could begin disappearing in La Cañada schools

La Cañada Unified School District's highly successful paper-and-pencil test-takers will soon have a new way to prove their scholastic knowledge when California schools start computer-based assessments.

The transition could begin as early as next year, and some of the state's Standardized Testing and Report grade-level assessments may be suspended along the way, according to a recent report by Tom Torlakson, the California superintendent of schools.

“[Torlakson's] recommendations do not change anything for the current year, but could provide a great deal of flexibility and opportunity to focus on 2014-15 Common Core testing as early as next year,” said Wendy Sinnette, superintendent of La Cañada Unified.

Torlakson's report follows the passage of Assembly Bill 250, also known as the Curriculum and Reform Act, written by former state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Democrat currently serving in Congress, and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2011.

“Multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests alone simply cannot do the job anymore, and it's time for California to move forward with assessments that measure the real-world skills our students need to be ready for a career and for college,” Torlakson said via a recent news release.

And the school district is on board with the paradigm shift.

“Instead of just paper-based, filling in the bubbles, we'll have a computer-based assessment,” said Andrew Blumenfeld, a member of the LCUSD governing board. “You could have a much more dynamic evaluation. That way, you're not just evaluating a student in that sort of static dimension.”

La Cañada, like other districts throughout the state, is poised to begin the process of moving away from STAR testing to comply with Common Core standards. Common Core is a national education initiative that is expected to create clear standards at nearly every school in the country. The STAR program is scheduled to sunset on July 1, 2014.

“With so much to do to prepare for Common Core, I'd welcome the opportunity to begin to shift focus and resources away from CST testing,” Sinnette said.

But, added Blumenfeld, there are “a lot of logistical challenges” associated with making the transition to computer-based assessments.

The district may need to obtain additional computers and beef up its bandwidth.

If there is a shortage of available computers as the new program gets underway, district officials would have to address how to achieve the testing. “Do the students do the testing in phases?” Blumenfeld asks. “That's a challenge, and it's a challenge that's coming up.”

While moving away from STAR testing may not necessarily be easy, the end result — using computer-based assessments — should be very positive, according to Blumenfeld, currently a senior sociology student with an emphasis on education at Princeton University.

“It measures a higher order of thinking skills than what was perceived in previous tests,” he said. “It will force them [students] to demonstrate skills and not just memorization. It's a much more robust way of assessing students' competency.”

The shift in testing could do more than just challenge the district in logistics and resources, it will also challenge the community to embrace a new benchmark for scholastic success.

“API [Academic Performance Index] scores, standardized tests and all that — it's something that the community understands,” Blumenfeld said. “We're very successful in that metric. We're No. 2 in the state. Whenever you shake up a metric like that you're going to have to rethink some things.”

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