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Testing in California: An overview

A GreatSchools guide to standardized tests

By GreatSchools Staff

Although test results are only one measure of student achievement, they have become increasingly important in assessing student learning. California currently uses the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program to measure student learning in grades 2 through 11. The STAR program includes the California Standards Tests (CSTs, a series of standards-based assessments), the California Modified Assessment (CMA, a standards-based test for many students with individualized education programs), the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA, for students with significant cognitive disabilities who are unable to take the CSTs or CMA), and Standards-based Tests in Spanish (STS). Prior to 2008-2009, the STAR also included the California Achievement Test, Sixth Edition Survey (CAT/6), a national norm-referenced test. In 2009, the CAT/6 was eliminated as a testing tool and was no longer administered in the state. California also administers the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), which high school students must pass to graduate.

Using tests in the STAR program and the CAHSEE, California assigns each school and district an Academic Performance Index (API) rating ranging from 200 to 1000, with a statewide API goal of 800 for all schools. Based on their API scores, schools are assigned API growth targets. These performance metrics are also available for various student subgroups. Schools also receive rankings — one comparing similar schools and another comparing all schools in the state.

Although test results can be an indicator of what's happening in the classroom, they don't tell you everything about the quality of a school. Always look at more than one measure when judging school performance and visit in person before making any final determination.

Tests in California

What is STAR?

Each spring California students in grades 2 through 11 take a series of tests through the Standardized Testing and Reporting program, more commonly known as STAR. First administered in 1998, the STAR program requires all public schools in California to test students between early-March and mid-June of every year.

How important is STAR?

As well as helping parents understand how well their students are learning, STAR is also designed to help schools understand how well they are preparing their students. It's a high-profile accountability tool, which means that the results get a lot of attention, and decisions about specific schools and students are often based on the results.

What happens when STAR scores and classroom grades don't agree?

Some students who receive lower scores on the STAR test may be at the top of their class, while others who excel on the test may consistently receive low grades in school. In either case, you should meet with your child's teacher or principal to discuss what steps your child or your child's school can take to improve consistency between test results and classroom grades, and what you as a parent can do to help.

What tests are included in STAR?

  • California Standards Tests (CSTs)
  • California Modified Assessment (CMA)
  • California Alternative Performance Assessment (CAPA)
  • Standards-based Tests in Spanish (STS)

The California Achievement Test, Sixth Edition Survey (CAT/6) and the Aprenda, La prueba de logros en español, Tercera edición were eliminated from the STAR program in 2009.

California Standards Tests (CSTs)

The California Standards Tests were developed to measure whether students are mastering the specific skills defined for each grade by the state of California. The CSTs are a series of standards-based assessments given in English-language arts in grades 2 through 11; math in grades 2 through 7; science in grades 5, 8 and 10; and history-social science in grades 8 and 11. In grades 9 through 11 students take the CST for the math and science courses (such as algebra, geometry, physics or chemistry) in which they are currently enrolled. Ninth-graders who are not yet taking algebra take the General Mathematics Standards Test. Students in grades 9 and 10 who had completed Algebra II or Integrated Mathematics during a previous school year, and grade 11 students who completed one of these two courses anytime prior to the beginning of testing, are required to take the Summative High School Mathematics CST. Students in grade 10 take the World History, Culture and Geography: The Modern World CST.

Comments from readers

"teachers need to stop teaching to the test we need more critical thinking skills! "
"My sister is currently a student at Sylmar High School in California and they have informed her that in order to pass high school, she will have to perform well on the CST's. I know that the CAHSEE is needed but the CST's are only to assess a child's skills correct? I only ask because this school has been known to lie before in order to "encourage" the students to perform better. "
"I would like to ask that even your only grade6 in the philippines then you have not finish it and you have no any records that will be submitted in your school is it ok that you could proceed in high school provided you have past the exam.? pls. response "
"In the second paragraph, second line, of the section copied below, the author of the article spelled "principle" incorrectly. Ed. Note: Thank you for this note. We've checked this and it appears to be spelled and used correctly, in its adjective form meaning "most important." "
"I've been told that CST scores go down from second to third grade, go back up in fourth grade, and, again, go down in fifth grade. Is this true across the state? "
"I am a student in Fontana, Ca,and I believe this test, the CST, is great for the reasons being: 1. It measures how much the student has learned, 2. How good the school's curriculum is. And 3. How well the teachers execute their jobs. By the way the tests are not very hard. "
"I am hoping to know how relevant the reading list level is and how it is determined. I have a 5th grader who scored 600/600 in both Math and English for 3 years in a row, 1200 each year from 2nd to 4th. She also scored 100% on her 4th grade Writing Application score. Yet, her reading list level is 9. It was 7(2nd grade), 8(3rd grade), then 9(4th grade). It looks to me that it just goes up by 1 every year. The reading level list doesn't mean much to me, since my daughter has read well over 3,000 books already. Yet, I am just wondering who gets the level 13+ and how. "
"As for perfect scores, it's quite common at our school. I have 7 students with perfect scores in math and 3 in language arts. "
"I, too am proud of my second grader. He scored perfect in math and he got a 525 in english language arts. He scored perfect on all sections of the test except literary reading and analysis where he got an 83%. He is African American and attends a Title 1 school in a crime-infested and impoverished community... "
"My child is in second grade and just received perfect scores on both math and language arts. Just like us, the school couldn't be prouder of him. :) "
"When will the parents receive CST results for 2011? "
"What happens if you need to take your child out of school the week of STAR testing to visit an elderly family member out of state? Can the test be done early or made up after returning? Thank you to anyone who answers! :)"
"I have a 20 year old and an 18 year old..They have both completed high school. My 18 (4.0)year old graduated last June & walked on stage last June on her older Sister's Birthday..Her older sister (3.8) had passed the literature the first time around but, even though she received A's in Geometry, Algebra etc, taken the test 5 times, missing by between 1-3 points each time. (She'll be taking the test for the sixth time next week). She missed by 1 point on last November's test. The Cahsee is a crock of crap. She has friends who passed both math and Literature the first time...Friends who can't even speak fluent english & spell worse than a 6year old. I think some of the schools 'fix' the tests. If a kid works their butt off academically and earns the credits needed to graduate there sould be nothing holding them back from walking across that stage. I am so sick of seeing this happen to so many kids.....Somebody needs to do something!!"
"my grandaughter is a senior in High School, she has taken the Cahsee math test at least six times, missing 2 questions and missing it by 1, she is waiting for her February results which is April, this is rediculous. If they are basing her future on the test, then why bother going to School? until she passes the math we can't even make any arrangements for Her Graduation 06/2011. is there anything that can be done?"
"There was a kid named Jessica Paige Waybright who got perfect scores on the CST."
"I would love to know how many kids get perfect scores on their STAR tests, too. My daughter who will be in 4th grade has gotten 600 on her math and 600 on her English for 2 years in a row. My friends who taught in LAUSD told me that they'd never seen it before....So, I am a bit curious...."
"How many kids get a perfect score on the star tests each year?"
"Could someone help me understand how is the math cst scores broken? How is each item weighted? Thank you, Frank"
"After reviewing, I agree with 8/19/2009 comments. This could be contributed to the middle and high schools lack of ‘required participation from the parent’ and ‘the school’s lack of informing parents on student issues’. On another note, regarding comment of 6/8/2009, most of us know there is usually an underlining issue that causes such behavior. Your negative comments towards these students or any others indicate your disregard towards teaching. Being a 23-year veteran parent, I was fortunate enough to have wonderful instructors that inspired my children to continue through college and be successful in life. Realizing children hold different views; our formula was to adapt learning to their needs. Oops, meaning, most disruptive students require more work, an instructor and family who is willing to help them academically succeed in life! To all the parents who make negative comments about the education system or excuses why my student did not pass a test. Children and teens feel that negative energy and tunnel it at school. Maybe you need to go back and look at what can you do to help your child succeed in school. Refocus negative to positive attitude. Remember, no one is perfect, including the education system. Peace out… "
"I have two kids on school and I explain them that school is their job and they have to study every day to ear good grades and I believe with the Exit Exam the students can prove if they were in school to learn good skills and continue with the most important steps, please thinking of the old years when kids were promoted to the next level because the age not of their because knowledge is wrong. How can we expect that our kids will be successful in their life if we are not preparing them well enough to start a new career when it is not just about graduating it is about how well they are doing and how hard they are working through the years."
"THANK YOU FOR THIS DETAILED INFORMATION AND CLARIFICATION! question: at elementary level, what interventions are set in place to bring lower achieving students (low test scores) up to grade level? it is common knowledge that a high amount of children are reaching middle school with an inability to complete basic math and english assignments. (how did they slip through the cracks - why do they move through the grades without being able to read/write and complete basic math??). common sense would lead to the intervention being in place here rather than later years when children have built up psychological defenses to learning at middle school/high school monies are spent on 'intervention tools' but by this time so much schooling/learning has been missed. ((ie: 'locking the stable door after the horse has bolted')). WHAT HAPPENS WITH THE STATE TEST SCORES? are they used as a guide tool to make adjustments or are they for documentation purposes only? Thank you for any informative response."
"Looks like the older kids are getting dumb and dumber when the freshman are passing Algebra II and juniors are barely passing Algebra I."
"Some children disrupt the classroom because that is--perhaps--how they can have a sense of power in a world where they feel they have none. . .no power over who they can become. . .low-self-esteem. I'm just speculating, but as a 20-year veteran teacher at Dominguez High School Compton, California, it is something I have observed, and my heart goes out to those kids. Still, that type of behavior is not and should not be tolerated. When all of us--teachers, students, parents/guardians--work together and put in our fair and honest share of effort, then our kids can succeed. . .and isn't that what it's all about, anyway?"
"To the person(s) posting 4/27/2009.....are you referring to the Exit Exam as the test that your daughter missed passing by 5 points??? I'm not sure what state you reside in, but here in California, the Exit Exam is first given to high school students as sophomores. Students are given at least 5 opportunities to retake to pass this Exam before graduation. Here, there are two subjects that are tested; English/Writing and Math. 450 points for each of the two. The passing requirement is only 350 per. To the 'Hogwash' response on 5/21/2009.......get a clue!!! Since when has summer school ever been a bad thing , whether the attendee is a straight 'A' student or one just trying to keep/catch up. It's about the effort to do better, as well as being held accountable if one hasn't made the effort or needs alittle extra help. STAR testing isn't CRAP.....CORPORAL PUNISHMENT and your skewed or blurred misconception is the 'CRAP' here. There are WAY TO MANY kids who don't 'give a ! damn' about their education(s), but all the while don't realize how their efforts, or lack there of affect the students around them who do care and make the efforts! There are too many school age kids who have come to believe/accept that the bare minimum effort, or less is acceptable. IT ISN'T! The 'respect in the classroom' IS in fact the kids who do make the effort, do the homework, do the extra credit, put in the extra hours and stress and sweat about the grades and or teachers comments. The kids disrupting the classroom are the ones struggling, hoping to bully, con and fake their way through. STAR testing or otherwise, the bottomline is that we as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles need to hold our children accountable and continually try to reinforce how important any and all education is."
"I have kids in public school and I teach part-time in both the CSU and UC system. In the private sector where I work full time, standards are measured by the work you do and success is defined by the ability to do it and profit frm it. The 'test' is simply an agreed upon standard, like a 10' rim for all you midnight basketballers. The tests were implemented to measure our students performance. Immigrants, coming in from third-world contries, were scoring higher and had better work ethics than out students in the 70s and 80s. It is like a game of basketball where all the weak guys under 5' had to play the guys over 6'. Over the past 15 years, I can definitely say that writing, communication, and test taking skills have improved since the testing was initiated. There are other factors, but the testing helps focus a student on doing work. Yes, it is more work, but this is good for students. Now, many parents feel like failures when Johnny scores in the 30% range. But here and as in real life, Johnny can take summer school to perform at a higher level. In a sense, improve his game. "
"Loved your format....... I will look forward to your next update. Thank you, "
"This is hogwash. They teach to these tests, and if you are 3 or under instead of being held back you have to go to summer school. And then when your 7th grader is placed in a class that all scored low, for example a math class, he is in there with all kinds of kids disrupting the class. Bring back choice of corporal punishment. Bring back f___ing respect to the classroom. This star testing crap is crap!"
"hi...this is not fair to the people who went to school for 12 years and can't graduate becuse of this daughter went to jordan high and miss passing this test by 5 points it was one week before graduation when i found out that she wasnt passing because of this test, i felt so hurt, i paid for her high package which cost me 1200 then they didnt want to return my money or the thing in her package, thats wrong the school board should stop this test and go back to the old days when all they needed was good permance in school."