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New State Exams Will Test Critical Thinking, Problem Solving

California schools would start phasing out multiple-choice California Standards Tests next year under state recommendations released Tuesday. Starting in 2015, student academic progress would be gauged using computer-based exams based on new voluntary national Common Core curriculum standards.

Wikimedia Commons

A student takes a California state mandated test at James Logan High School in Union City, California.

California Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson said, like the new standards, state testing will focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

“We’ve been asking our kids to learn new skills and so the assessments must change, too," he said." We’re moving to a newer dimension, a higher dimension, a smarter and more effective learning system.”

Tests will include open-answer questions and will be able to customize questions based on student performance. Torlakson said the new standards and tests will better prepare students for careers and college, while built-in interim testing will give teachers feedback during the school year on how to tailor lessons to meet students' needs.

The questions students face during the school day, at home and on exams will be more complex, so Nellie Meyer, deputy superintendent of academics for San Diego Unified said students may bring home a shorter list of math problems for homework - but each one would take longer to complete.

“They have more real world examples," she said. "They have, in some cases, multilayered problems – where first you have to solve this in order to solve the next problem. And so the difficulty at first blush – they do look somewhat more complicated.”

Next year students will still take multiple-choice, bubble-in tests for subjects required under federal law, but non-mandatory tests will be discontinued.

The testing recommendations released Tuesday must be sent to the legislature, where the plans will have to be approved and guidelines written before they go into effect. But districts are already preapring.

Across San Diego County, most districts are on track with the training teachers and principals will need in order to prepare students for the new standards and exams, according to Sally Bennett-Schmidt, director of assessment for the San Diego County Office of Education.

But when it comes to being ready to use a computer-based testing system, she said, districts' preparedness varies widely. Some San Diego County districts have computing devices for every student in many classrooms and others have experience rotating classes through computer labs for computer-based tests, but others have no first-hand experience with computer testing.

“They might have a computer lab and students may be doing research on the computer or they may be even writing essays or papers on the computer, but they may not have assessment experiences,” Bennett-Schmidt said.

Many expect increased school funding to be part of the first proposal for next year's state budget that Governor Jerry Brown will release Thursday. But after five years of funding cuts, there is no state money earmarked to help districts with the testing transition.

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