There are still some kinks to be worked out, administrators with the Mountain View Whisman School District said, but the practice tests teachers have been using to prepare students for the end-of-year statewide exam appear to be contributing to higher scores.
For two years now, students in local elementary and middle schools have been preparing for the California Standards Test by taking practice exams compiled by an education company called Curriculum Associates.
Superintendent Craig Goldman cautioned that two years of data is not enough to conclude with certainty that the practice tests are helping, or will continue to help. However, Goldman said that he is "pleased with the overall growth both in language arts and math scores" since the district introduced the practice exams.
"It's nice to see that progress is being made," said Mary Lairon, the district's associate superintendent. "It's really helpful in understanding what standards have been taught and what standards need to be taught -- and what children need to have in terms of additional instruction."
The tests, which are given once each trimester, cover common California standards. Curriculum Associates has designed the tests to mimic the CST -- both in the way the questions are asked and how the tests are administered.
Teachers are able to quickly reference individual student scores and determine who needs to improve and on which topics. In some cases, Goldman noted, teachers have been able to pinpoint types of questions that confuse certain students, such as word problems or story comprehension.
In addition to the practice test's benefits, both Lairon and Goldman said that they have observed some flaws with the tests -- both inherently and in the way teachers have been administering them.
Lairon noted that that the Curriculum Associates tests do not have any questions that require a written response.
"Curriculum Associates is just one piece of the puzzle," Lairon said. "If I were to create my ideal assessment system, I would create a mix of assessments" -- including both written and multiple-choice questions, like the CST has.
Goldman said next year he would like to see teachers be more selective about which portions of the Curriculum Associates tests they give throughout the school year. "I think the tool is useful, but I think it's worth considering modifications to the tool to fit our needs," he said.
Over the past two years, the students have been given Curriculum Associates tests that covered material they hadn't been taught.
It can be useful for a teacher to know if a portion of a given class is ahead of the curve. For everyone else, it can be stressful and damaging to self-esteem when there are questions they don't understand, Goldman said.
Students need to be able to succeed taking standardized tests; on the other hand, the district needs to make sure it is not wasting time, he said. The test takes about two hours, Goldman noted. "I tend to agree that giving a fairly lengthy assessment to students at the beginning of the year is not creating a lot of benefit."
"This is a work in progress," he said.