In S.F. schools, it's the process that's tested

By Jill Tucker

At Starr King Elementary, Latrice Simmons, a convert to the
benefits of benchmark assessments, teaches third grade.
Every spring, California schoolchildren pick up their No. 2 pencils to take standardized tests, filling in answer sheets hour after hour. The tests go on for several days, after days and days of preparation and practice for those tests.

There's too much testing and not enough learning, Gov. Jerry Brown said during his annual State of the State speech last week.

Brown proposed curtailing the number of tests students have to take, an idea met with enthusiasm by teachers who long have complained about the national obsession with standardized tests.

Yet, in San Francisco, district officials added an asterisk to that support.

That's because city schools are testing kids more than ever before. District officials don't call them tests, though. They call them assessments. There's a big difference, said Richard Carranza, deputy superintendent.

Assessments explained

Tests, whether given by the state or in class by a teacher, are a snapshot of a point in time, he said. They are used to determine a student's grade or to rank a school.

With assessments, which San Francisco started administering last year, district officials can check to see how well students are learning. A uniform district-wide assessment is given three times a year in elementary grades and twice in high school.

"It's checking for understanding," Carranza said. "It informs you: What do you do next?"

He doesn't see a conflict with the governor's proposal, which is connected to a belief that local districts should have greater control over decision making.

The district's benchmark assessments, which include multiple choice, open-ended questions and writing, are scored for the most part by the district and then returned to schools within 24 to 48 hours.

Charts and other data show what academic concepts students understand and what they don't. The data also show trends across schools and the district as a whole. Parents get individual reports about their children's scores.