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Last Updated On: November 17th, 2023

If you attend primary or middle school in California, you will likely take a standardized test at least once per year. Public school students take the CAASPP, which stands for the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. The most common form of this test is the “Smarter Balanced Assessments for English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics.” Many students at independent schools take a different test, the CTP-5, which stands for the 5th edition of the “Comprehensive Testing Program.” This test is administered by the Educational Records Bureau, so schools and parents often refer to it as “ERB testing” or “the ERBs.”

Both tests are designed to measure how well students are mastering grade-level standards, how they compare to their grade-level peers, and how schools and teachers might better address students’ strengths and needs.

Who takes these tests?
The CAASPP test is administered to all public-school students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11. ERB testing is the decision of each independent school, so it’s up to the school which subject and grade levels take the tests. The ERB CTP-5 test is available for grades 1-11, but not every independent school tests every grade level. It’s common for students to take ERB tests starting in second or third grade and going up to eighth grade or higher. Some independent schools may choose not to do school-wide standardized testing, while public schools are required to administer the CAASPP.

How are the tests administered?
Students taking the Smarter Balanced assessments will do so on computers, which are provided by their schools. Students taking the ERB tests may take them on either paper or the computer, depending on what the school decides. Both the paper and electronic ERB tests include the same questions.

What is the format of the tests?
The Smarter Balanced assessment is a computer-adaptive test, which is designed to pinpoint a student’s precise skills and grade-level. This means that a student who answers questions correctly will get harder questions, while a student who answers questions incorrectly will get easier questions. Smarter Balanced questions use a variety of formats, including multiple-choice with one answer, multiple-choice with multiple answers, filling in missing information on a chart, highlighting information in a sentence or set of sentences, plotting points or drawing lines on a graph, open-ended short answers, and extended response or essay questions. The test also includes a performance task, which incorporates multiple subject areas and skills and requires students to show their work and explain their thinking.

The current form of the ERB tests are not computer adaptive, which means that every student taking the same test for the same grade-level gets the same set of questions, even if the student takes the test on the computer. Most questions are multiple-choice with one correct answer. Students might also be given a math performance task that requires them to show their work and explain their thinking. In addition, some schools might choose to administer a different test called the WrAP test (Writing Assessment Program). This test, also administered by the ERB, gives students a writing prompt and asks them to write an open-ended essay or response, usually over the course of two days.

Which subject levels are tested?
Smarter Balanced state testing includes English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics. Science is tested in grades 5, 8, and once in high school through the California Science Test (CAST).

Most schools that do ERB testing include the following subject areas: Reading Comprehension, Mathematics, Auditory Comprehension (grades 1-3), Word Analysis (grades 1-2), Verbal Reasoning (grades 3 and above), Vocabulary (grades 4 and above), Quantitative Reasoning (grades 3 and above), Writing Mechanics (grades 2 and above), and Writing Concepts (grades 3 and above). In addition, an online Science test is available for grades 3-9 and an Algebra test for grades 7-9.

When are the tests administered?
The testing window for the CAASPP is January 9 through July 15, 2024. The testing window for spring ERB testing is March 4 to July 19, 2024. Some schools opt for fall ERB testing, with a testing window of August 1 to February 24. The most common testing months for schools on a traditional (not year-round) schedule are April and May, as these months allow teachers time to teach the content included on the test and to conclude testing before the end of the school year.

Each school and school system will announce the testing schedule in advance. Many schools opt to administer the tests in the morning, with one or two subtests each day.

How are the tests scored?
Students who take the Smarter Balanced Assessment receive both a scaled score and a score level. The scaled score is based on how the student’s performance compares to his/her grade-level peers, but it may be difficult to understand without context. The score level is straightforward:

Level 4- Standard Exceeded (based on grade-level expectations)
Level 3- Standard Met
Level 2- Standard Nearly Met
Level 1- Standard Not Met

Students who take the ERB CTP-5 test receive a scaled score, a percentile score, and a stanine score for each section. The percentile and stanine scores explain how students compare to their grade-level peers using norms at the national level (compared to all types of students), independent school level (compared only to students at independent schools), and California independent school level.

Many independent schools look most closely at the independent school percentile when analyzing a student’s score. Since students at independent schools tend to perform higher than average, using this metric may make it appear that the ERB tests are “harder” than the CAASPP tests. It may be, however, that the ERB scores are being compared with a more competitive group. The national norm offers a more accurate comparison with public school test scores.

How long do the tests take?
The CAASPP is untimed, so students should not pass or fail due to the time limit. The total test (given over multiple days) takes 6-7 hours, and estimated testing times can be found here.

The ERB tests include a time limit of 20 to 45 minutes per subtest, for about 3-4 hours total, often administered over several days. Many students find it easy to finish within this limit, but some students may run out of time. A student who needs additional time may have to apply for an accommodation, which can be allowed at the discretion of the school.

Are accommodations allowed on the tests?
Accommodations, including small group testing, read aloud, and frequent breaks, are available for the CAASPP for students with an IEP or 504 plan. Accommodations may also be given for the ERB CTP-5 tests, with flexibility given to schools to choose how to administer them. If you believe your student might need accommodations and they don’t already have a plan in place, it’s important to start the evaluation process well ahead of the test dates.

How “high stakes” are these tests?
All schools use these tests to evaluate their educational program, curriculum, and teaching methods. In addition, the tests may be used to help determine an individual student’s class placement, qualification for enrichment programs, and/or needs for additional services or accommodations. Schools may also ask to see a student’s individual score reports when making admissions decisions. The school-wide scores from the CAASPP are available to the public, but only parents, teachers, and relevant school staff see the scores of individual students. Independent schools can choose how they share and publish their test scores. Most schools send an individual score report home to each family and also share scores with teachers and staff.

How should students prepare for these tests?
Test preparation includes two important components: content knowledge and familiarity with the format and expectations of the test. Ideally, students will gain the content area knowledge and skills through school attendance and their grade-level coursework. If a student is struggling in school, it’s best to address those challenges by working with the school and teacher—and possibly through tutoring and additional services. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, a teacher might not get through the entire curriculum before testing begins. For example, a student might have ever been taught the rules of probability, even though that’s a concept on the test. In that case, it might be helpful for a parent or tutor to identify the concepts a student needs to learn and instruct the student outside of school.

Students can become familiar with the test by completing one or more practice tests or sets of sample questions. Most teachers and schools do this during class, but students who struggle with the test’s format or pacing might benefit from additional practice or tutoring. Sample questions for the CAASPP can be found here, and a limited number of sample items for the CTP-5 can be found here. In addition, websites like Testing Mom can provide additional practice questions, though these practice sets are not created nor endorsed by the test makers. A reasonable amount of preparation can help to ensure that the test is an accurate assessment of a student’s strengths and needs, rather than telling us that the student didn’t know how to take the test.

Both the CAASPP and ERB tests are meant to be measures of what students have learned in school and not high-stress assessments. The best way to prepare for these tests is by ensuring that students are learning throughout the school year.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

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