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End of an era: 2012 was likely last year of California's STAR test

California prepares to move away from multiple-choice standardized tests.
California prepares to move away from multiple-choice standardized tests.

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After 14 years, California students have likely filled out their last bubbles on the Standardized Testing and Reporting tests. The state is scrapping the test for a new one in 2015 and state school officials are pushing for no state tests next  Spring as they get ready.

The end of the STAR tests suits English teacher Oscar Hernandez just fine.

"As teachers we’ve always been told what we need to teach as far as the curriculum and we don’t have problem with that," he said.

But when STAR rolled out in 1999, he said, it was the beginning of cookie-cutter curriculum in California.

"What was different about this is that they started to invade our pedagogy, in other words, how we teach, our approach," Hernandez said. "Everything became very scripted."

As a result, teachers couldn't tailor lessons to student needs, he said.

The STAR tests were the first high stakes tests in California to judged teachers’ work, student learning, and a school’s reputation. They were born after California moved to create statewide rules for what each teacher should teach, how they should teach it, and how that all should be measured.

To assess whether kids were learning, state officials created an entirely multiple choice test given over several weeks in the spring.

Elementary school teacher Eric Heins said the test proved overwhelming for some students.

"I had a second grade test where a kid was so frustrated that he actually got up and threw over the desk," he said.

That’s understandable. Four years ago the second grade English STAR test was 40 pages long.

USC education researcher Morgan Polikoff said the multiple choice format could only test a certain kind of learning: "low level skills, you know, memorization and procedure, not tapping really higher order thinking."

Schools labeled as low performing were targeted for improvement and drastic overhaul if test results didn’t turn scores around.

And it worked – at least by one measure. In 2003, only one in three students were proficient in math and English. Now it’s more than half. But that's still not ideal.

"The last ten years, I think, have not gone as everyone envisioned as far as testing and accountability," Polikoff said. "On the other hand, we know a lot more about performance than we did before. We have a lot more data and are able to diagnose problems in much more sophisticated ways than we could before."

The new test will be based on a new national curriculum called the Common Core. The goal of Common Core is to push higher level thinking skills such as problem solving and writing. California will measure that through more complex tests, that include essay writing and word problems in math.

Will that be better?

Hines, who’s also a vice president of the California Teachers Association is holding out hope. He said the goals of the new test are more aligned with the skills teachers think ought to be measured.