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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."

This spring, only third through eighth graders, as well as high school juniors, will take the new exam. Students will only be tested in either English language arts or math — not both. Second graders will no longer be tested.

In 2015, students will take the test in both English and math and results will be released.

Meantime, educators are bracing themselves for what is expected to be a drop in the percentage of students considered proficient in core subjects.

In 2014-15 when the first official results are made public, California will no longer define what proficiency looks like. California is now among more than 20 states that have determined what a student needs to know in order to be deemed proficient or advanced in a subject.

Considering that California already lags behind the nation on a common academic report card compiled by The National Assessment of Educational Progress, educators are bracing themselves for an expected drop in California students' levels of academic proficiency under the new testing system.

In 2011, California's scoring scale determined that 64 percent of fourth graders and 57 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading. On a national scale, just 25 percent of those same fourth graders and 24 percent of eighth graders scored proficient.

The dramatic divide is equally evident in math.

In California, 71 percent of fourth graders and 47 percent of eighth graders scored proficient, but when judging by the national grading program, only 34 percent of fourth graders and 25 percent of eighth graders were considered proficient.

When California's students start getting graded on the Common Core, educators should be ready for a backlash from parents and community members when levels of proficiency fall, Sue Gendron, policy coordinator for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium told a room full of Sonoma County educators last month.

"This whole first part is about damage control, which I find weird. Realistic, but weird," she said.

"You don't want to see happen in your communities what happened in New York," she said.

What happened in New York was a steep decline in proficiency levels when schools across the state were tested on the Common Core curriculum last spring. The scores led to a backlash against the new system and skirmishes in political races with candidates eager to place blame.

But Sonoma County officials said results from the two programs cannot be compared in any meaningful way.

"It's not even apples to oranges," SCOE's Porter said. "It's kind of apples to steak."

At Alexander Valley School, Principal Bob Raines has invited parents to campus on Oct. 24 to take portions of the new test in an effort to familiarize them with the radical change. The idea is to give parents first-hand experience with what students and teachers will be dealing with.

Raines said Alexander Valley's numbers to are likely to fall off but that is to be expected with a dramatically new system.

"Kids that were 80-90 percent (proficient) kinds of kids are suddenly 65-70 percent," he said. "If kids could do this right off the bat, it wouldn't be a fundamental change."

"Teachers are working their tails off," he said. "Everybody is feeling the stress of the change."

Andy Brennan, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, praised Common Core for returning teaching to teachers.

"It's really teaching reading, writing and critical thinking," he said. "In many ways it's a return to the style of teaching that we did before No Child Left Behind."

But the change will have fallout, especially among students who know no other way than what was set forth under the much-maligned federal accountability program, he said.

"It's going to be difficult because you have all these kids in the pipeline who have been taught one way and now we are asking them to do something different," he said. "You have a whole group of kids who haven't really built those skills that we have to work on."