When Sonoma County students sit down to the latest round of standardized testing this spring, it will mark the first time in more than a decade that the results will have no real ramifications for schools or districts.
This spring, California's students will participate in a field test of the new Smarter Balanced assessment, meant to measure understanding of the new federally-backed Common Core curriculum.
The administration of the field test means no student, school or district scores will be released as they have been for years under the Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, program.
Passage of AB 484, authored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, requires all California schools to participate in the new assessment program. In addition, it frees schools from also having to take the STAR test — a key component of accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"I don't see another way to shift so radically to a new assessment system, and reporting of it, than taking a year off," said Keller McDonald, superintendent of the West Sonoma County School District.
Federal officials have vehemently lobbied against California's push to forgo STAR, but area educators say a year reprieve from high-stakes testing and penalties under the outgoing system gives teachers and students time to learn the new system.
"I see it as a real gift," said Mickey Porter, assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education. "I think it moves us forward."
Some student-advocacy groups have decried the lack of publicly released scores as a black hole in the continuum of accountability, but area educators said implementing the new testing system on a trial basis makes sense as teachers and students are introduced to the markedly different standards outlined in Common Core.
In Petaluma City Schools, Sonoma County's second-largest district with approximately 7,700 students, the new test was tried out with a limited number of students last spring in a pilot program.
Petaluma students will continue to be assessed throughout the school year so the lack of cumulative state results should not create a void of information, according to Superintendent Steve Bolman.
"You have to have local assessments to make sure that our students are progressing," he said. "We can't be just relying on a state test to give you that determination."
Bolman said the first round of Smarter Balanced tests in the spring of 2014 are focused on testing the administration of the test, rather than the cataloging of student knowledge. This spring, schools will not be allowed to administer any paper and pencil version of test, although that may be an option for some in upcoming years.
Early results will likely be skewed by students' abilities to perform basic computer operations — type, drop and drag — at speed and under pressure, Bolman said.
"They are going to be testing technical skills initially as much as academic skills," he said. "If you are hunting and pecking and typing with your thumbs, it is going to affect your results on the test. We learned that with the pilot."
Despite the dramatic changes, Bolman said the new program is a welcome change.
"The Common Core is good news," he said. "The Smarter Balanced (assessment), I think, is going to be an excellent test once it's fully implemented and we are getting results."