Student testing

Students concentrate during an English class at Jordan High School. California officials have altered a statewide testing plan to include English and math. (Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times / March 11, 2010)

State officials Thursday announced that nearly all California students will take new standardized tests in English and math this spring.

The previous plan had been to test students in either English or math but not both. The revised approach was hailed by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which had lobbied for the state to pay for students taking tests in both subjects.

"The motivator was that we heard from a lot of districts and school officials and teachers that they wanted to see both halves of the test," said state Chief Deputy Supt. Richard Zeiger.

This round of testing was never meant to generate test scores or data for schools. Rather it is a "test of the test," as officials put it, to make sure questions and the exam as a whole are valid and reliable. In the following year, the test will begin to yield results for students.

For schools, the initial testing period will be a trial run for students and staff to get used to the new format. The tests are intended to be given on computer, and the difficulty of test items increases or decreases based on student responses. The hope is to provide a more precise measure of student knowledge.

The learning goals underlying the tests also are different: They favor critical thinking skills over rote memorization, for example. The tests are based on the Common Core learning standards adopted by 45 states.

L.A. Unified was among the districts that wanted all students to have a testing experience in English and math.

"We applaud and appreciate that the state has listened to L.A. Unified and other school districts," said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.

The district had been prepared to spend $2 million to expand the testing on its own.

"We are glad that this decision will relieve us of the obligation to pay for the second test, saving us vital funds," Deasy said.

The state's new plan maintains the same $51-million testing budget as before by trimming each subject test in about half. This reduces the amount of money needed for grading the tests, which is a major portion of the expense.

The reduction in the size of the test would likely affect how many computers L.A. Unified would need this year. That topic had been an issue of contention. District officials said Wednesday that they had to have more than 67,000 iPads to send to schools just for testing purposes. That's in addition to 85 schools that would receive iPads for every student as part of a $1-billion technology program.

A committee overseeing school bond spending challenged those numbers. And they may now have additional ammunition for doing so.

The district estimate was based on students taking the full test in math and English. State officials said Thursday that school districts now could offer only a half-test in English and a half-test in math.

The time set aside for testing -- and perhaps the number of computers needed -- would also presumably be reduced by about half.

Zeiger said that under an agreement between the state and the testing consortium, L.A. Unified would no longer have the option to offer the full test in each subject, even if it was willing to pay for it.

The decision to test students in English and math brings California more closely in line with federal testing rules. That's important because the Obama administration could withhold federal education dollars if California is violating its requirements. 

"We hope the federal government will see the merits of our actions,” Zeiger said.  "If so, that's great. If not, it will be what it’s going to be."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume