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.

Other tests

The California Alternative Performance Assessment (CAPA) is given to students with significant cognitive difficulties who are unable to take the CSTs. The CAPA measures achievement in English-language arts, math, and science.

The California Modified Assessment (CMA) was first given in 2008. The CMA, which is offered to students with an individualized education program or IEP, was first given only in grades 3 through 5 to a small percentage of students for whom both the CST and the CAPA were not appropriate. In 2009, the CMA was given in English-language arts to students in grades 3 through 8, in math to students in grades 3 through 7, and in science to students in grades 5 and 8.

The Standards-based Tests in Spanish (STS) are given to Spanish-speaking English learners who have been enrolled in California schools for less than 12 months or are receiving instruction in Spanish. These Spanish-speaking students in grades 2 through 11 take the STS in reading-language arts and mathematics.

California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE)

The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE, pronounced KAY-see) is a test used to determine whether students have mastered key skills before graduating from high school. High school students must pass the CAHSEE in order to graduate. The CAHSEE is a standards-based test, which means it measures whether students have learned specific skills defined by the state in English-language arts and mathematics. The CAHSEE is first administered to all students in grade 10.

The test is divided into two sections: math and English/language arts. The math portion covers academic content standards for grades 6, 7 and algebra I, including: statistics, data analysis and probability, number sense, measurement, algebra and functions, math reasoning and geometry. California has decided that algebra is important for all students because it helps students learn math reasoning – an important skill needed when students enter the workforce, whatever profession they may choose. The English/language arts portion includes the content standards through grade 10, including vocabulary, reading, and writing strategies and conventions. In addition to answering multiple-choice questions, students write an essay on a specific topic. To see sample CAHSEE questions, look for “released test questions” under Program Resources on the California Department of Education (CDE) website.

The CAHSEE is an untimed, pass/fail test. In 2010, both portions of the CAHSEE had a pass rate greater than 80 percent among 10th graders. The California Department of Education provides multiple opportunities for test administration. School districts have some flexibility in setting test administration dates, offering testing dates in the fall, winter, and spring/early summer. You can see the testing schedule on the CDE website.

Even though the CAHSEE is called an “exit exam,” students take the exam in 10th grade so that those who aren’t able to pass have time to receive assistance prior to graduation. Students who do not pass one or more sections of the test have several opportunities during subsequent years (at least twice in 11th grade and at least three times in 12th grade) to retake the sections they have not yet passed. According to California law, schools must provide assistance in the form of tutoring, additional courses or summer school for students who are not showing progress toward passing the test. If students repeatedly fail the test, they can take the General Education Development Test (GED), or they can attend adult school classes to earn a diploma. Students who are 18 or older, regardless of whether or not they have a high school diploma, can attend a community college in California.

Special versions of the test are available to help students who have special learning challenges or whose first language is not English. For example, the test can be administered in Braille, audio CD and large print format, and when necessary schools will provide a scribe. Students with physical disabilities will be entitled to the same accommodations they have during classroom instruction. Students must pass the exam in English in order to graduate. However, test variations for English learners have been added to the CAHSEE, including the use of translation glossaries and the option to ask questions in their primary language.

How are the tests scored?

CST results show the level of proficiency a student demonstrates in each of the subject areas tested. Students will receive one of the following five ratings on the tests: far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. The goal is for all students to score at or above the proficient level. Students who score at the proficient level or above are considered college-ready, particularly at the high school level. Since only California students take the CST, the results cannot be compared with other students across the nation.

CAHSEE results show the percentage of students passing each section of the test. Scaled scores on the test range from 275 to 450, with a passing score of at least 350. This translates to students answering approximately 54% of the math questions and 60% of the English-language arts questions correctly in order to pass.

Which results are included on GreatSchools profiles?

Although the STAR program includes a variety of tests and subjects, only CST results are included on GreatSchools profiles. For each subject on the CSTs, the combined percentage of students scoring at and above the proficient level is displayed.

For each subject on the CAHSEE, GreatSchools displays the overall passing rates for grade 10 students taking the test for the first time during the spring semester of their sophomore year.

GreatSchools also displays subgroup results to show how different groups of students are scoring in comparison to the overall student population in a given grade and subject. These subgroups are identified by the California Department of Education; if there are 10 or fewer students in a particular group in a school, data is not reported for that group.

Why do the tests matter?

Although California does not mandate that schools use test results to make decisions regarding grade-level promotion or retention, individual schools may take STAR performance into account when making such decisions. In general, standardized test results that are below proficient are one factor that might indicate the need for additional assistance. CAHSEE scores are particularly important to high school students, because students must pass the test in order to graduate. Students who do not pass the first time have multiple opportunities to retake the test.

Test score performance is important to schools because it is a principal factor in determining the Academic Performance Index (API) score, the accountability rating assigned to each public school by the state of California. These ratings can have substantial consequences. Under-performing schools may be given additional funds to encourage improvement and excellent schools may be eligible for awards.

It is important to be aware of both your child’s test results and the overall accountability score for her school. If your child scores below proficient, contact the teacher to discuss getting additional assistance and to find out how you can support your child’s learning at home. If the school’s overall scores are low, ask what steps the school is taking to raise achievement levels for all students, and what you as a parent can do to help. If your child is in a failing school, ask what your options are for transferring and obtaining supplemental services.

Academic Performance Index

The purpose of the Academic Performance Index (API) is to measure the year-over-year growth in academic performance for California schools. The API summarizes a school’s standardized test results into a single number. Each school’s STAR and CAHSEE results are calculated into a complex formula that assigns the school an API between 200 and 1000 (1000 being the best score). The state has set 800 as the target API score that schools should try to achieve. Each API cycle includes a Base API and a Growth API. The Growth API is calculated using test results from the school year after the results used in the Base API calculation. The difference between the Growth API and Base API measures a school’s academic growth from one year to the next.

The API number is translated into a ranking, 1 to 10, from underperforming to high performing. It is used to help schools track their own progress and to hold schools accountable for improvement. The API is an important metric because schools that consistently fall short can be subject to strong local or state sanctions, including reorganization or closure. Schools also can be eligible for recognition through the California Distinguished Schools Program. So it’s important to pay attention to the API, as this number may have a big impact on your school’s future.

Base API

The 2011 Base API was calculated using each school’s test results from the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program and the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) taken during the 2010-2011 school year. The California Department of Education releases the Base API results each spring. The Base API is used to measure academic improvement from one year to the next by comparing it to the Growth API released the following summer.

Growth API

The 2012 Growth API will be calculated using the same test criteria as the 2011 Base API. However, the 2012 Growth API was calculated from the 2011-2012 standardized test results, while the 2011 Base was calculated using the 2010-2011 test results. The Growth API is used as a measure of improvement in academic performance when compared to the Base API.

API growth targets

Each school is assigned an API growth target by the state. For Base APIs between 200 and 690, the growth target is 5 percent of the difference between the Base API and 800. For schools with a Base API from 691 to 795, the growth target is five points. Schools with a Base API above 795 are expected to increase to and/or maintain an API of 800 or greater. A school meets its overall API growth target if it meets its schoolwide target and all numerically significant subgroup targets.

Improvement is measured by subtracting the 2011 Base API from the 2012 Growth API. Positive numbers mean that standardized test results improved, while negative numbers indicate that test results declined.

API subgroups

Numerically significant subgroups are defined by the state as having at least 100 students in the group who have valid test results or when there are 50 or more such students and they constitute at least 15 percent of all tested students. Subgroups include the following ethnic and socioeconomic categories: Black or African American (not of Hispanic origin), American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Filipino, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, White (not of Hispanic origin), two or more races, socioeconomically disadvantaged, English learners, and students with disabilities. Students are categorized as socioeconomically disadvantaged if they participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program or if their parents did not graduate from high school.

Statewide rank

The California Department of Education ranks all schools from 1 to 10 according to their Base API. A rank of 10 means that the school’s API fell into the top 10% of all schools in the state at the same grade level. The most recent ranks are based on the results of standardized tests taken in spring 2011.

Similar Schools Rank

The API Similar Schools Rank compares the test score performance of schools with comparable demographic profiles using a scale of 1 to 10. A school with a low API but high Similar Schools Rank may be more effective than a school with low ranks all around.

The California Department of Education calculated the Similar Schools Rank by comparing each school to 100 schools with similar demographic factors, including student ethnicity, parent education levels, and the percent of students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch.

Why do the API results matter?

As a fundamental part of the Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA), API scores are used to meet state and federal requirements for school accountability and are an important component for measuring a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

It is important to be aware of both your child’s score on the assessments and the overall score for his school. If your child scores below the standards, contact his teacher to discuss getting additional assistance, and to find out how you can support your child’s learning at home. If the school’s overall scores are low, ask what steps the school is taking to raise achievement levels for all students, and what you as a parent can do to help.

Why do some schools not have APIs?

There are several reasons why some schools don’t have API results. For example, if a school failed to test at least 85 percent of eligible students or if the school tested fewer than 11 students, the state does not calculate an API for that school. Schools that serve specific kinds of students, such as special education schools, are currently accountable under a different model.

The API: 10 things parents should know

1. The API is not a test. Rather, the API is a school performance measurement system that was first developed as part of California’s 1999 Public Schools Accountability Act. Each year, the state calculates the Base API for each school to establish a baseline for the school’s academic performance, and it sets an annual target for growth. Each summer, the state announces the Growth API for each school, which reflects growth in the API from year to year.

The 2011 Base API, released in May 2012, is calculated using each school’s test results from the California Standards Tests (CSTs — state tests designed to see how students are learning state standards), the California Modified Assessment (CMA), the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA) and the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE).

The 2012 Growth API, which will be released in September 2012, shows the school’s academic growth for the year. It is calculated in the same way as the 2011 Base API.

2. The API measures both school performance and improvement. The API can be used to see how well a school did on tests in any given year, as well as to track school progress over time. Each year, parents can review a school’s API number, which shows how well it did relative to the state’s goal of 800, and also check the school’s growth from the previous year. To make it an accurate measure of school improvement, the Base API calculation only includes test results of students who were in the district during the previous school year. The Growth API is calculated using results of students from the current school year.

3. The API has very high stakes. Due to the spotlight on API results from newspapers and the state, schools are under tremendous pressure to increase test scores and improve their APIs. While some argue that this pressure encourages schools to improve classroom instruction, others are afraid that schools will shortchange rich curricular programs in favor of test preparation drills.

4. The API measures academic performance, not school quality. As a parent, you may have heard people say things like, “The school has an API of 750, so it must be a great school,” or “The API is only 550? What’s wrong with this school?” While these simple assessments are tempting, be careful about jumping to conclusions based on a school’s API alone. Before making any overall judgments about a school’s quality, be sure to look at its API improvement as well as other key factors, including teacher experience, parent involvement and special programs.

5. The API focuses on achievement for all students. The API is designed to show how well schools are serving students across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. For this reason, separate APIs are calculated for each of a school’s statistically significant subgroups, which include any ethnic groups that account for a significant percentage of the school’s population. If “numerically significant,” APIs are also calculated for a school’s socioeconomically disadvantaged students (students who qualify for the subsidized lunch program or who don’t have a parent with a high school degree), English learners, and students with disabilities.

6. Schools that don’t improve their APIs must get help. If a school doesn’t meet its API growth target and has one of the lower Base APIs in the state, it may receive grants and special assistance to help with improvement efforts. If a school continues to fall short of its target, it may eventually be subject to strong local or state sanctions, including reassigning the principal (subject to a public hearing), reorganization or even school closure.

7. API results are for schools and districts only. There is no such thing as an individual student API. The API is based on scores from the CSTs, the CMA, the CAPA and the CAHSEE. The API measures how a school’s or district’s academic performance improves from year to year.

8. The API has changed. It used to include just the results of the norm-referenced tests — in the first years, the Stanford 9 tests and later the CAT/6. These tests compared California students to their peers nationwide. In recent years the emphasis has shifted to include more results from the CSTs, which more accurately reflect what California students are expected to learn in the classroom, and fewer results from the CAT/6. In early 2009, the CAT/6 Survey was eliminated entirely as a testing tool in the state.

In 2001-2002, CSTs in English language arts (for grades 2 through 11) were added to API calculations. Scores from CSTs in math (for grades 2 through 11), social science (for grades 10 and 11), and the CAHSEE were added in 2002-2003 to provide a more accurate picture of what students have learned. In 2003-2004, CST science tests in grades 9 through 11 and the CAPA in language and math in grades 2 through 11 were added. Since 2004-2005 even more indicators have been added. The API now includes the CST in science for grades 5 and 8 through 11 and in history-social science for grades 8 through 11. In 2008, the California Modified Assessment (CMA) was added to the API for grades 3 through 5. Grades 6 through 8 of the CMA were added in 2010.

9. The API is complicated. If the whole topic of the API confuses you, you’re not alone. Educators and parents alike struggle to understand where the API comes from, how it’s calculated and what exactly it means. Here’s the bottom line: APIs range from 200 to 1000 and the goal for all schools is 800. The API is based on test scores and is calculated in a way that encourages schools to raise the test scores of the lowest-scoring students.

10. GreatSchools Ratings and the California API are different. GreatSchools also calculates a rating on a scale of 1 to 10 based on California test results. There are several important differences between GreatSchools Ratings and California API Ranks:

  • API Ranks are created by the California Department of Education. GreatSchools Ratings are created by GreatSchools.
  • The API is calculated using results from the CSTs, CMA, CAHSEE, and the CAPA. GreatSchools Ratings are calculated using the CSTs only. For additional information on GreatSchools Ratings, check our frequently asked questions.
  • Some test subjects count more than others in the API.
  • The API includes all 5 levels of proficiency (far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient or advanced), each receiving a different number of points toward the total API. The API is calculated this way to encourage improvement in test scores. GreatSchools Ratings use only the percent of students who scored at the proficient and advanced levels. GreatSchools Ratings show how the percentage of students on grade level at a school compared to schools across the state.

California’s Reading List

As you decipher the bar graphs and national percentile ranks on your child’s STAR report, don’t ignore the small print in the lower left-hand corner on the back. Here, the state has provided your child’s California Reading List Number — a number you can use to encourage your child to read throughout the school year.

Your child’s California Reading List Number is determined by his performance on the reading comprehension portion of the California Standards Test (CST). This number will lead you to books that match your child’s reading level and are appropriate for his age.

Instead of selecting books strictly by grade level, the California Reading List allows you to find grade-level books with suitable content. For example, if your seventh grader is reading at the 11th grade level, you can find books written at a high school level that have topics and themes that are interesting for a younger reader.

Where to find books

Once you’ve found some good book suggestions for your child, print out the titles and authors and take your child to your local library or a bookstore, or order books from a vendor on the Internet.

Search for California schools.