Palo Alto students take new state tests

Teachers anticipate learning curve with Common Core-linked tests

Students across the Palo Alto Unified School District are sitting down to computers over the next few weeks to take the state's new Smarter Balanced Assessments, which for the first time this year will yield an entirely different set of standardized test scores, marking a shift in how the state measures student performance.

Juana Briones Elementary School kicked off the testing last week, with the other elementary, middle and high schools following suit this week and through mid-May. Palo Alto's third- through eighth-graders and high school juniors are taking computer-adaptive tests in English-language arts and math for the second time — they, along with the rest of the state, piloted the test last year — but for the first time this year, their schools will receive the results.

Since there was no feedback or data provided from last year's trial run of the Smarter Balanced tests, school district officials and site administrators are largely in the dark about what the new results will look like or how the measurements will be broken down.

"This is new for everyone," said Chris Kolar, the district's new director of research and assessment. "I think that it will take some time for us, when we get (the results) back, to understand what they mean."

Smarter Balanced is the new assessment for the Common Core State Standards, which California adopted in 2010. The more than 20 states that have adopted the new standards worked in collaboration with K-12 educators in 2012 to develop the new test, which replaced the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program and with it, paper and pencil multiple-choice exams. The Smarter Balanced test is done entirely on computers at all grade levels, with a format that is meant to gauge students' mastery of concepts and skills. The new test is aligned with the Common Core values of critical thinking, analytical writing and more authentic assessments meant to engage students in real-world applications of what they learn in the classroom. The test is also adaptive, meaning the software adjusts the difficulty of questions as a student moves through so that his or her results can better illustrate what skills he or she has mastered or needs to improve on.

Smarter Balanced's ultimate goal is to assess whether students are on track to pursue college or a career by the time they graduate from high school, which will likely mean radically different and more comprehensive measurements than the STAR test's "advanced," "proficient," "basic" and "far below/below basic."

A frequently-asked-questions page on the California Department of Education website warns, "based on trial runs of the new assessments in California and other states, many if not most students will need to make significant progress to reach the standards set for math and literacy that accompany college and career readiness." The page also notes that when the STAR exam began in 2002, the tests also set a new baseline for achievement, and student results quickly improved over time.

Janine Penney, manager of research, evaluation and assessment for the Palo Alto school district, cautioned parents and staff about making any comparisons with past standardized measurements when the district receives the Smarter Balanced results, which the state says will be no more than four weeks after a school completes its testing. (Results will be reported to the public by the state in August or later. Detailed individual reports will be mailed to families in late summer/early fall.)

"We're not talking apples to oranges. We're not talking about fruit. It's apples to toothpicks. They're completely different measurements," Penney said.

They're also completely different tests, and much more aligned with the way Palo Alto teachers say they have long viewed classroom instruction.

The test has three components: a classroom activity that is meant to be completed several days before the test to prepare students generally; the computer-adaptive test; and a "performance task," which Smarter Balanced describes as "collections of questions and activities that are coherently connected to a single theme or scenario ... meant to measure capacities such as depth of understanding, writing and research skills, and complex analysis, which cannot be adequately assessed with traditional assessment questions."

Last year's pilot English-language arts exam for Palo Alto juniors, for example, asked students to write a persuasive essay in support of their response to the question, "Should art be publicly funded?" Students were provided source materials, including magazine editorials and historical documents. Palo Alto High School English teacher Erin Angell said this kind of interdisciplinary assessment is a marked change from the content-driven, more static standardized tests of the past.

"I think the primary shift (in Smarter Balanced) was about cross-integration of different reading materials and that the reading task would be a comprehensive discussion of those different texts whereas previously, like with the STAR and the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam), it would be, 'look at this piece of literature,' or 'look at this nonfiction text, and write about it in isolation,'" she said.

"For me, as a history teacher, there's been a little bit of liberation because instead of being so focused on content specifics, we're now focused on analysis and what you can derive from the documents," echoed Paly history teacher Eric Bloom.

Smarter Balanced also provides optional interim assessments that are similarly structured so teachers have ways to measure student growth outside of the annual testing window.

While many school principals said their staff and students felt largely prepared to take the new test content-wise, the focus in the weeks leading up to the test was on getting all involved accustomed to the technology. Staff meetings at some schools were turned over to trainings, and many students across the district took practice tests to familiarize themselves with how to log on to the secure browser and how to navigate the test once they were on. The test also includes supports for English-language learners and students with special needs. Strategies emerged on handling issues that wouldn't come up with a paper-and-pencil test, like what to do if a student doesn't know the answer to a question but wants to come back to it.

"In the past we used to tell students, 'If a question is hard, just put a little mark by it and come back to it later,'" said Lisa Hickey, principal of Juana Briones Elementary School. "That doesn't work at all. You have to answer the questions before you can move on. ... For most of (the students) it's going great and it's fine but there are a couple where if they get frustrated on one they can't really move on to the next one. That's been a challenge for us."

Hickey said the pilot test last year sparked conversations at Juana Briones about when to begin teaching typing (the school currently offers some formalized teaching instruction at the beginning of third grade).

Kolar said the district will be doing its part this summer to prepare its data systems and make sure that whatever comes back, "that data is going to be usable for both principals and teachers this fall."

Palo Alto parent Gina Dalma, senior program officer at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and also director of grantmaking for the Silicon Valley Common Core Initiative, said the real rubber will meet the road at this point.

"The tests will be hard, but what you do with the results will be harder," she wrote in an email. "Principals will have a challenge communicating to their teachers the changes needed to succeed under these new tests. If the info is swept under the rug and we fail to understand that these results will only be a baseline but they give us worthwhile info — we will waste a huge opportunity for deeper learning."

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6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2015 at 10:39 am

Like New York, parents in Palo Alto are going to be surprised when the test isn't just regurgitating the textbooks. There's going to be a backlash and an "opt-out" movement.

9 people like this
Posted by Roxana Marachi
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2015 at 11:35 am

In early March, a 30+ page invalidation report by SR Education was released documenting serious technological interface barriers and design flaws with the SmarterBalanced Math tests. Several states have recently halted testing due to widespread server failures, and many teachers/students who have taken the tests (locally/nationally) have echoed the same tech flaws that were documented in the invalidation report. These issues were brought to the attention of SmarterBalanced test designers over a year ago and have yet to be resolved.

Since we are still in an implementation year, many students are being told this year's scores "won't count." However, nearly 200 colleges/universities last week signed on to use the (invalid) 11th grade 2015 SBAC scores to determine students' access to the regular college curriculum or tracking into remedial coursework. Failure rates are projected to be extraordinarily high (see tech/design above), and most parents are likely unaware of these recent developments as updates have been slow to hit the news. Thanks PaloAlto Online/Weekly for covering this important topic. Please explore these additional developments further as well. All documentation/reports referred to here are included in this collection: Web Link

14 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 25, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

The Smarter Balance tests are really a disaster. I encourage parents to go to their site and try some of the samples. It is total amateur hour in the design and implementation.

Practice test link:
Web Link

Imagine a third grader struggling through the shoddy design and interface. The content of the questions is fine, but the presentation is so awful.

Even Common Core advocates have begun to repudiate this test. Steve Rasmussen wrote a devastating critique. This is the summary, but please read the full report:

* Violate the standards they are supposed to assess;
* Cannot be adequately answered by students with the technology they are required to use;
* Use confusing and hard-to-use interfaces; or
* Are to be graded in such a way that incorrect answers are identified as correct and correct answers as incorrect.

Full report:
Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Thank God I no longer have kids in the schools. Is all of this a scheme to level the playing field as some students performed poorly on STAR and CAHSEE tests in the past?! Everyone can be equally confused. It sounds like a silly name - Smarter Balanced Assessments. Just teach Reading, Writing, and Arithmetics. It 'aint rocket science, folks.

2 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 25, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@neighbor - I actually feel bad the poorer districts. Most kids in Palo Alto have experience suffering through badly designed computer systems, so they'll figure out Smarter Balance. It's the kids who haven't had to push through using lousy software at home and school that will really be punished by Smarter Balance.

5 people like this
Posted by Bad Technology
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 25, 2015 at 3:12 pm

My middle schoolers just spent the last week suffering through this and said the technology was horrible and kept breaking! My daughter said that at one point she was ahead of the girl in back of her (I guess you can look at other student's screens to compare progress which is another issue with the tests in my opinion) but her machine broke down. By the time it was fixed the other girl had finished and my daughter was left still working on her test! My daughter works slowly so she spent the entire week working on this test! I would rather she had gone to class. She has always scored Proficient or Advanced on the Star test, but I am concerned that the technological glitches made her lose her concentration; that along with being anxious that other kids were finishing before she was. I also don't see the value in 11 through 13-year-olds working on a test all day, 5 days in a row without much of a break! No wonder kids are so stressed. I think from now on I will opt my kids out!

4 people like this
Posted by Don
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 25, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Try to figure this one out.
A computer based test takes how long to score?
a) 10 Minutes
b) 1 Day
c) one month
d) three months
e) probable later if we let you see the scores at all.

Answer: About three months, we use old IBM computers with slooooooow processors.
(Can you raise taxes and give us a few?)

16 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 25, 2015 at 9:44 pm

The test content looks really good to me, but I can't get over how much time the kids are spending on this. My fourth grader is spending more than 12 hours over 7 distinct days on the testing, not counting the days the class spent preparing. It seems out of proportion.

7 people like this
Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 25, 2015 at 9:53 pm

And how long is the written test at the DMV to allow people the privilege to operate dangerous (possibly lethal) motorized vehicles?

Strange how these testing criteria are completely out of whack.

26 people like this
Posted by Another dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2015 at 8:31 am

My family doesn't really go camping, play softball, or other fun family activities.

We spend most of our time hassling with the stupid overkill homework assigned by the teachers or moronic tests mandated by the state or feds. It is literally a daily argument in our family. I come home every evening to find my wife almost in tears over the subject.

It's not just me. I hear similar stories from families in our neighborhood.

30 years ago I would have defended the US school system and teachers. Now the school system has become the enemy of my family and my life, the most hated institution.


43 people like this
Posted by Gunn Junior
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 26, 2015 at 8:36 pm

A strong majority of juniors at Gunn opted out of the Smarter Balance. Not because the test is harder than the STAR test or anything. Here's a pro-tip California and PAUSD: If you want Juniors to take a standardized test, don't make it a week before AP testing.

8 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Apr 26, 2015 at 10:00 pm

@Another dad,
Are you going to be at this Tuesday's documentary? (About redefining success -- in addition to the documentary, Salman Khan of Khan Academy will speak, plus Linda Darling-Hammond, Esther Wojcicki, etc.) It's at Gunn, and they made an overflow screening available in the gym.

Some others of us are trying to find solutions involving a hybrid model of school-homeschool, in some form or other. Please contact Ken Dauber if you are interested, I think he has heard from other families as well.

10 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2015 at 7:54 am

From my perspective, my junior has just left feeling cheated that most of the school has a day off. Two half days, seems to me that for high school students who have long thought of STAR Testing as a waste of time, that this is a pointless exercise for them.

10 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2015 at 10:07 am

I just don't get making kids to math problems without access to scratch paper and pencils. They don't do math this way on a daily basis. How would you like to take a math test where you can't have a pencil to work with.

42 people like this
Posted by Kerry55
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:23 am

As a former teacher with 2 children in school in Palo Alto, I'm surprised that there is no organized parent movement to boycott this test, like what is going on in other states. I opted out of Smarter Balance. last year at Barron Park, my child suffered through the language arts section, very bewildered and confused, along with guessing for approx. half of the questions. Since there is no tracking for subjects(math starts in 7th), believe parents should take a stand, and not make our kids guinea pigs in this data driven society. Rethink the whole testing paradigm, makes some students brag and internalize how much smarter they are compared to others. The stress and anxiety students feel should override the benefits of standardized testing.

4 people like this
Posted by Eric Rosenblum
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:37 am

Eric Rosenblum is a registered user.

I sympathise with the view that these test might not be a good use of time. However, it does seem that this is a good opportunity (unless I'm completely misunderstanding the purpose and format of the tests).

My 7th grader told me that he was looking forward to these tests because they don't impact his grade at all, so he didn't feel stressed. He thought that it would be good to get feedback and practice taking tests on the computer when it "doesn't count".

At the moment, I feel the same way. I think that test taking skills are an unfortunate reality of life these days, and getting the chance to practice and get feedback without a lot of stress has to be a good thing, no? Am I misunderstanding something?

1 person likes this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:37 am

Slow Down is a registered user.

@ Parent - the content isn't the problem, it is the way you have to interact with it, and how much time it is taking away from learning. If an SAT can "judge" 12 years of education in a few hours, why should Smarter Balance testing take any longer to evaiuate the progress of a single grade?

1 person likes this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:40 am

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Eric Rosenblum - Unlike some posters here, I am not at all opposed to standardized tests, and was totally fine with the STAR tests. But the Smarter Balanced testing system is terrible. Please, take 5 min and try the practice test, and let me know if you think it tests knowledge, or if it tests your ability to cope with a terrible interface.

Web Link

22 people like this
Posted by Gunn Mom
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:44 am

My son, a Gunn junior, said that his teachers explained the procedure for opting out, which is not to say they encouraged it. I understand the majority of Juniors opted out. Staying home to study for two days is a far more productive use of my son's time, especially, as noted above, this time of year.

15 people like this
Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:48 am

I rarely allow my Paly Junior to skip school but last night I agreed to send a note to formally have him opt out of the 2 testing days. If you read the small print, you can do this. He's now happy because he can use the 2 days to prepare for AP and SAT subject tests. I'm happy because he's happy. I didn't think things could become crazier in the PAUSD, but clearly they can.....

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Posted by Eric Rosenblum
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:52 am

Eric Rosenblum is a registered user.

@slow down

thanks for the tip. I just logged in and started the math portion (I *think* that this is the right test link: Web Link)

the interface is pretty bad, but is useable.

the SATs of my day (1980s) featured a pretty lame UI (I remember in 2nd grade learning how to make sure the we filled in the scantron circles correctly). By the time we were in highschool, we had the scantron forms down pretty well, even though they are an objectively bad interface.

I just think that hte people who design test taking software may not be UX geniuses, and that our kids should learn how to work competently with common test-taking software packages.

40 people like this
Posted by Addison parent
a resident of Addison School
on Apr 27, 2015 at 11:54 am

Totally agree with Kerry55. Why is PTA silent on this? This test is not just a disaster, but a disgrace. The kids are tested on what they DID NOT learn at school. A big portion of math is a so-called descriptive math with a lot of logical application. I was taught like that 40+ years ago in a different country, so was able to help my child when practicing for the test. But this is so unfair towards all the kids in general.
Unbelievable! Palo Alto parents consider themselves so sophisticated, and nobody speaks up about this. I expressed my disappointment to my child’s teacher weeks ago, but a much bigger movement is needed – not allowing our kids to be guinea pigs for Smarter Balance enterprise.

3 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 27, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@ Eric Rosenblum - I strongly feel the test takes very simple to calculate mathematical problems, and hides the answers behind a very obtuse interface. When results come in, it will be very difficult to discern whether wrong answers were due to problems teaching in the classroom, or problems with the test. It makes the whole thing an expensive waste of time.

This problem from the 5th grade math test is a simple task with a pencil, paper, and some calculation. But the test makes you draw squares with a clumsy line connecting tool, it is confusing, awkward, and wastes a lot of time with drawing lines and connecting dots in an unintuitive way.

Web Link

Posted by Gail
a resident of Old Palo Alto

on Apr 27, 2015 at 2:19 pm

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Posted by Eric Rosenblum
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2015 at 2:33 pm

Eric Rosenblum is a registered user.

@ slow down.

All very good points. Thank you.

16 people like this
Posted by tbt to wasc
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 27, 2015 at 2:35 pm

I'm extremely confused as to why PAUSD would choose to have high school juniors take SB testing this week. There were multiple times earlier in the year where this test could have fallen where there would have been far less pushback from students; having the testing right now causes it to fall in the midst of both the whole zero period discussion (where student enmity towards Dauber and the district administration is at an all-time high), and right before AP weeks, arguably the the most tense and stressful time of the year for upperclassmen (where the test serves to steal two days of in-class review time for APs).

Of course, there's another issue, which is that SB testing is widely seen as being flawed as a whole. Forecasts on the test results indicate that the vast majority of ELL students, students with learning disabilities, and students under the federal poverty line will not receive passing scores on the test. Again, while these issues probably impact Palo Alto less than nearly everywhere else in the nation, they simply serve as signs of the test's inherently flawed design. As a whole, SB further exacerbates the disadvantages of lower-income districts, and of specific student demographics, and is more a measure of an area's wealth than of its students' academic ability.

1 person likes this
Posted by Type to the Test
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 27, 2015 at 3:03 pm

There was tremendous pressure at Addison this year not to teach disabled children printing or handwriting so they'd type the Smarter Balance tests in Grade 3.

Like this comment
Posted by Another dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2015 at 3:34 pm


Re: Tuesday, I will try to make it! Thanks for the tip.

3 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2015 at 5:35 pm

My Gunn junior reported that only six students in her classroom took the SB exam today. There was apparently a boycott campaign on facebook and it succeeded. With such low participation, it's not at all clear if the results will be useful or representative.

While the timing a week before AP's is poor, students and parents should realize that future SAT tests are going to be like this exam. So the experience of taking this kind of exam is useful.

1 person likes this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2015 at 5:48 pm

It seems less than 50% juniors took the test at Paly. Web Link Wonder what will happen tomorrow?

4 people like this
Posted by Another Paly Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2015 at 6:03 pm

My junior cut class today and plans to do it again tomorrow.
Kids this age who have nothing to do all day long often get into trouble.
The teachers and staff should have emphasized the importance of this test and attending class, but the message the kids understood (at least mine) was that it was optional and not important.
We argoued all morning trying to get our kid out of bed.
Parents don't need more reasons to argue with their kids.
I don't like leaving a bored teen home.
It also seems that the teachers must have lightened up the homework loads this week/

12 people like this
Posted by Just want out of PAUSD
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 27, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Here was the text message exchange from today between me and my daughter - a Paly junior.

Daughter : ...I finished a 2 hr test in 10 minutes and the teachers don't know what to do so they let us go. It was only 5 questions….
Me: You are kidding me. Were the questions hard?
Daughter: It was all about roofs. And what roof to use on different houses..this is such a waste of time
Me: So what are you doing?
Daughter: We have to wait till 10:30 to go back and do part we are just chilling

9 people like this
Posted by Et Moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2015 at 6:32 pm

According to a blurb in last week's WSJ, many states have allowed kids to opt out of these tests. Some East Coast states have reported nearly 60%!opt outs, but New Jersey took the cake at nearly 85% opt outs!

1 person likes this
Posted by Elena Kadvany
education reporter of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Apr 27, 2015 at 7:30 pm

Elena Kadvany is a registered user.

My name is Elena Kadvany; I'm the Weekly's education reporter. I'm working on a follow-up story on the Smarter Balanced test and am hoping to talk to both students who took the test and those who decided to opt out. I would welcome hearing from parents as well! Feel free to email me at

8 people like this
Posted by Gunn Mom
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2015 at 7:36 pm

If PAUSD is giving a standardized test that is for all intents and purposes "optional", many if not most students will opt out, and rightly so. Gunn administration had to be aware of the pending boycott, yet remained mum. My son said he would have taken the test if the Principal or Vice Principal had urged students to do so. The problem is clearly a lack of conviction and/or understanding at the top as to the value of the test as a state-wide tool for assessment. Until PAUSD believes in and can articulate the purpose of and value in this test, it will be considered optional and low attendance will skew results. As it stands, a two day suspension of academic instruction so a handful of students can take a non-required assessment test whose value is unclear is simply poor academic policy.

4 people like this
Posted by Eric Rosenblum
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2015 at 7:53 pm

Eric Rosenblum is a registered user.

well, my 7th grade son took the math portion today.

His comments (if it's interesting for anyone else on the thread):
1) the interface is a bit hard to navigate (particularly in comparison to other computer tests that we've taken"
2) it's "gotten harder"... "it used to be just multiple choice; now we have to justify the answers. I liked the 'old test' better (note: I don't actually know what 'old test' he's referring to)"
3) "I think that they are trying to teach us critical thinking skills instead of just calculation skills. I'm not sure if it really works though."
4) "I wasn't stressed. It doesn't count for anything except to get feedback. We didn't have any other homework this week, so it's good :)"
5) "the content felt about right... pretty much stuff that we've been learning"

I think that trying to teach critical thinking skills is a worthy goal, but I think that standardized tests are a hard format for testing this skill.

As I had thought before, the interface is not well designed, but my son had fewer problems with it than I did.

All-in-all, doesn't feel like a great test, but not a disaster either.

8 people like this
Posted by Palo Verde Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 27, 2015 at 8:15 pm

The timing of the test is one of the main problems. The juniors have the SAT this Saturday and AP exams start next week, so some teachers are giving course exams this week. My student has multiple academic things happening later in the week - an exam, a lab and an essay. It certainly doesn't feel like the teachers lightened up on HW this week.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2015 at 9:50 pm

Like the old regents exams, PAUSD should make the Smarter Balance exam performance a condition for advancing to the next grade :-) That should get the participation rates back and students taking them more seriously.

4 people like this
Posted by Engineer
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2015 at 10:07 pm

"Most kids in Palo Alto have experience suffering through badly designed computer systems, so they'll figure out Smarter Balance."

Here's an excellent site for practicing navigating badly designed computer interfaces:

Or maybe that's excessive overkill.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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