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A conversation with ... Tom Torlakson 

California’s state schools chief discusses the future of assessments and the transition to the Common Core State Standards

Spring 2013

A former science and history teacher and a veteran of the state Legislature, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson fully appreciates the importance of fiscal support for public education. In his first week as California’s schools chief in 2011, he declared a state of financial emergency—a main theme of his first interview with California Schools in the Spring 2011 issue.

“Educators are making heart-wrenching decisions so they can meet their fiscal obligations,” Torlakson said then. He urged Californians to help their local schools and support efforts to restore the state’s leadership in education.Voters answered the call in November 2012, passing both Proposition 30, the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act, and Proposition 39, which adjusted taxes on multistate companies doing business in California to fund energy efficiency measures—with a significant portion directed to public schools. “The California School Boards Association, through [2013 and 2012 Presidents] Cindy Marks and Jill Wynns, was crucial in helping get the word out about the link between strong schools and a strong economy,” Torlakson acknowledged in his second full-length interview with California Schools, conducted in January.

He called passage of those measures two of “the brightest spots by far” for education last year, and he added a third:  

“Thanks in large part to leadership by local school board members and other ambassadors for our schools, almost nine out of 10 local school bond measures passed, netting more than $13 billion for schools across California,” Torlakson said. Voters’ reinvestment in education “gives us an opportunity to move forward with many of our key initiatives. This includes the transition to Common Core State Standards, which provide a practical way to prepare children for the challenges of a constantly changing world by learning step by step the real-world skills they need for career and college.”

You recently proposed changes to California’s assessment system. What led you to develop these proposals?

The Department of Education’s report, “Recommendations for Transitioning California to a Future Assessment System,” was required by 2011 legislation, Assembly Bill 250—which I sponsored. Authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, the legislation’s direction was to bring school curriculum, instruction, and the state assessment system into alignment with Common Core.

It’s important to recognize that California’s system of student assessment has proven to be a powerful tool for assessment and accountability over the past dozen years. When [Standardized Testing and Reporting] testing began, only one student in three scored proficient or higher. Today, about 900,000 more students are reaching the goals we set for them than when STAR testing began.

But California has never been content to stand still, and the STAR assessments are scheduled to sunset July 1, 2014. We are asking students to master different skills now than we were a decade ago. The way we test what they have learned has to change also.

Legislators recognized that with AB 250, and, with significant stakeholder and public involvement over the past year, we developed these recommendations.

We took feedback from about 2,000 superintendents, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, academics and community members, and used that to help guide us. Our Statewide Assessment Work Group of stakeholders held six meetings from March 21 to September 6, 2012, all of them open to the public. And we placed a statewide survey on our website for several weeks that received more than 1,500 responses.

Why are we moving away from paper-and-pencil and multiple-choice bubble tests?

Because we have higher standards now that require creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, and we have new technology, computers that weren’t available on a large scale when STAR testing began.

Can you provide an overview of what you are recommending?

We have set our sights on a new, more ambitious goal: creating a system that fosters high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom.

The full report, totaling more than 160 pages, is available on the California Department of Education website. [“Recommendations for Transitioning California to a Future Assessement System”:] Among the recommendations is the suspension of particular STAR assessments for the coming school year unless the exams are specifically mandated by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act or used for the Early Assessment Program. This would suspend STAR testing of second-graders and end-of-course exams at the high school level. It’s intended to give schools time to prepare for the switch to the Smarter Balanced assessments and implement Common Core.

I also recommend that the state provide formative diagnostic tools developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to all schools, which would give teachers and schools the option of receiving continuing internal feedback on the progress of students throughout the school year.

Overall, we made a dozen recommendations that would fundamentally change California’s student assessment system, replacing the paper-and-pencil based STAR assessments with computerized assessments developed by the SBAC starting in the 2014-15 school year.

In the absence of federal action to correct the clear failure of No Child Left Behind, we have attempted to strike a balance with our recommendations—continuing to provide an individual student score each year in the grades and subjects required by federal mandates while providing reasonable and more flexible alternatives for students in other grades and subjects.

One of the things often said in support of the Smarter Balanced approach to testing is that it incorporates more problem solving and critical thinking skills. Additionally, computer-based testing is often said to be adaptive to the student taking the test. Did these considerations figure into your recommendations?

Very much so. The concept is simple: If our tests are designed so that students need problem-solving and critical thinking skills to perform well, those same skills will be more likely to be taught day-to-day in our classrooms. That’s an exciting development to me as a teacher.

It takes the old negative of “teaching to the test”—a burden that teachers have been saddled with for years—and turns it into a positive. The test becomes significantly more useful when it requires that students use the very skills that schools are trying to teach. This is so important a step toward improving the system that I am recommending the state assume the cost of these formative tools.

Also, if the test is designed to adapt to each student and provide some results in almost real time, they will actually help inform teachers as to how best to help their students and shape what happens in the classroom—while these students are still in it.

Will it be expensive for schools to upgrade their computer systems to allow for these assessments?

School technology is a challenge, but it’s one schools can and are addressing. And, in fact, the assessments can be taken on computers running operating systems as old as Windows XP, launched in 2001. Schools will have 12 weeks to administer the assessments, allowing an entire school’s student body to be served, if necessary, by a single computer lab. And, if needed, paper versions of the new assessments will be available for at least three years.

For schools that will pursue updating their systems, there is now an online, interactive technology readiness tool. This tool will help state and local educational agencies as they evaluate their current infrastructure and technology in terms of readiness for implementing the new assessment system, and help them identify strategies for closing any technological gaps that are identified. The tool went live in spring 2012.

What is the timeline for implementation of these new Smarter Balanced assessments?

Field test development and pilot testing will take place in 2012-13, and field testing will take place 2013-14. Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, the Smarter Balanced assessments will be operational and ready to use as federal accountability assessments.

More specifically, the Smarter Balanced Pilot Test is scheduled to take place Feb. 20 through May 10, 2013, in grades three through 11. Smarter Balanced will select schools for the pilot test using two approaches. The “scientific” component targets a representative sample of schools, and the “volunteer” component will be open to all schools in the Smarter Balanced states to ensure they have the opportunity to experience the basic functionality of the system.

LEAs should direct questions about the Pilot Test to

Has California played a role in developing these Smarter Balanced assessments?

California does serve as a governing state in SBAC, the multistate-led group that has been working collaboratively to develop a student assessment system aligned with Common Core. Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman is our K-12 lead on the governing board, and we have additional higher education representation. Also, Stanford’s Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond—who coincidentally co-chaired my Task Force on Educator Excellence—serves as an adviser to the organization.

Since we applied to be a governing state, California has an active role in all SBAC policy decision making. We sit on the Steering Committee and participate in work groups that include assessment design, item writing, pilot testing, field testing and more.

How do your recommendations for changes to California’s assessment system tie into the transition to Common Core State Standards?

Shifting the focus of standardized testing in California to require students to think critically, solve problems and show a greater depth of knowledge—these are key tenets of the new Common Core State Standards. Our current multiple-choice tests won’t cut it for the society and the economy that we are preparing students to enter when they leave our classrooms.

Common Core offers schools, teachers, students and parents clear and consistent standards in English language arts and mathematics. These new standards define the knowledge and skills students should take away from their K-12 schooling to be successfully prepared for career and college opportunities. About 45 states are part of this initiative.

Teachers and parents need information about whether students are meeting the expectations outlined under Common Core, which is why Smarter Balanced is developing an assessment system that will measure mastery of these standards and provide timely information about student achievement and their progress toward college and career readiness.

What will Common Core mean for students?

California is putting these standards to work as the foundation for remodeling our education system. The standards keep the best of what we have but replace outdated ways of learning with a clear focus on the key knowledge and skills students need, and provide teachers the time to teach them well.

In large part, Common Core will mean clarity and consistency—not just from school to school, but from state to state. Currently, every state has its own set of academic standards, meaning different levels of achievement may be expected from public school students at the same grade level in each state.

Common Core allows states to share information more effectively and to help provide all students with an equal opportunity for an education that will prepare them to go to college or enter the work force—regardless of where they live.

The transition to Common Core is obviously a massive undertaking. What are you at the California Department of Education doing to communicate effectively with stakeholders to gauge progress, identify challenges and share positive developments?

These communications have been taking place on both one-on-one and statewide levels for many months. We have created a Common Core communications toolkit for California, created a Common Core implementation team within the department and worked with the State Board of Education to name a senior fellow to work exclusively on outreach.

Some of our most recent actions include inviting district superintendents and direct-funded charter school administrators to participate in a survey designed to gather information regarding Common Core implementation. We will use the aggregate data to identify trends and patterns and help guide our future steps toward full implementation.

We also promote Common Core-related resources via our Web page and listserv. [ and] We spent some time in the fall consolidating pages and adding information to make these pages as useful and user-friendly as possible.

Beyond the school and district stakeholders, we’ve also worked hard to ensure that parents have the opportunity to be fully informed. There’s a parent handbook on our website, as well as a handful of informational flyers in English, both simplified and traditional Chinese, Hmong, Filipino (Tagalog), Spanish and Vietnamese.

California’s student body, and population as a whole, is largely Latino. Will these new standards be available in Spanish?

Yes, this is very important. Common Core en Español is a joint effort between the San Diego County Office of Education, Council of Chief State School Officers and California Department of Education. Translating these standards into Spanish will go a long way toward providing teachers and schools the support they need to reach and teach every child.

A group of district-level educators and language scholars has been working for several months to translate the standards into Spanish, as well as to provide “linguistic augmentation” to ensure the new document goes beyond a word-by-word translation to communicate concepts effectively.

This translation is significant because it sets the stage for equitable assessment and curriculum development.

One of the concerns that surfaces during discussions of the new assessments, the overall implementation of Common Core and any major education initiatives is funding. Can you speak in general terms about the state of the budget this year?

Let me share with you the statement [below] I gave to the media on the day Governor Brown’s budget recommendations were released, which provides my initial reaction to the proposal. As you might imagine, our detailed, line-by-line analysis is still under way as of this writing.

The Governor’s budget proposal keeps the promise we made to Californians who supported Proposition 30, and wisely begins to restore  some of what our schools have lost. It will take years to bring our education system back to financial health, and I applaud the Governor for beginning that work in earnest.

I do believe, however, that early education programs—cut deeply in recent years—deserve to share in this recovery as well. They are among our best investments in the future of California’s children.

I look forward to working with our community college partners regarding the future of adult education. I am concerned with any change that would sever the longstanding ties these programs have with K-12 districts, thereby diminishing the access to classes that play a vital role in helping Californians receive the basic education they need to become productive citizens.

I admire the Governor’s determination to move forward with an overhaul of California’s confusing system of school finance, and I share his desire to direct more help to students and schools with the greatest needs. At the same time, I remain concerned about the fragile fiscal state of so many school districts and preserving state priorities. I look forward to examining details of the Governor’s proposal and working closely with the education community throughout this challenging process.

What are some things school boards can or should be doing to participate in the Common Core implementation process?

On our website, we provide some information specifically for school board members. [See “CCSS and School Boards” under the Community Partners tab at]

Among the things we suggest are:

  • Setting aside time for the board to review the Common Core State Standards and their implications, prepare key district messages about where the district is now and where it is going with implementation;
  • Recognizing the emerging nature of the Common Core implementation timelines, communicate how implementing Common Core strengthens and extends existing district efforts to prepare students for successful futures;
  • And acknowledging concerns related to resources, increased expectations for all students, and what changes students and teachers might experience.

School boards might also consider what strategy policies they need to adopt or revise to guide the district’s actions related to implementation of the Common Core system changes.

And how might this relate to a board’s governance responsibilities?

We provide additional suggestions to help boards set direction, establish structures, provide support, ensure accountability, and demonstrate community leadership.

On that last point, for example, we recommend that board members work to involve all stakeholders in the setting directions processes and continually communicate district progress toward the implementation goals and priorities. They might identify key messages related to Common Core implementation, speak with a common voice to the community, involve school and community leaders in building momentum and support for goals, and keep the community informed and focused on the district’s efforts. They could also advocate for necessary resources at the local, state and national levels, and gather feedback on what parents want to know more about and try to provide answers to “hard” questions.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Superintendent Torlakson. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Let me just say that I truly appreciate the work and sacrifices of local board members. It’s terrific to have an opportunity to help shape the education of California’s young people, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility. I look forward to working with school boards across the state in the time ahead. Thank you. 

Brian Taylor ( is the managing editor of California Schools.