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Understanding California's Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program

Last updated March 27, 2014

    A note about big changes to California's testing systems
    California’s testing and accountability systems will soon be changing significantly as a result of recent legislation and the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

    In 2013, Assembly Bill (AB) 484 suspended the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program to allow schools time to prepare for the new Smarter Balanced assessments, which are aligned to the Common Core standards, and transition to a new assessment system called the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). A law passed in 2012, Senate Bill (SB) 1458, called for significant changes to the composition of the state’s high school Academic Performance Index (API).

    The State Board also approved new standards for English Language Development in November 2012, which will require a new test of English language proficiency. But until that test is developed, schools must continue administering the current California English Language Development Test (CELDT).

    Details for the new assessment and accountability systems as well as the implementation of the new Common Core Standards are still being worked out, and each has its own timeline. We will provide an in-depth explanation of the new systems when more information is available.

    How these changes affect what you see on Ed-Data: Because most of these changes take effect in the 2013-14 school year, this article accurately explains the testing and accountability system for the data and reports currently posted on Ed-Data. In 2014, most of the California Standards Tests (CSTs) will be suspended, so the testing and API data will be different.

    For more information, please see: Changes to California's K-12 Education System.

    Each spring, California students take a battery of standardized tests that comprise the state's STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) Program. The key component of the program measures students’ achievement of state academic content standards.

    Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA)
    ​In 1999, California passed the Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA) as the first step in developing a comprehensive system to hold students, schools, and districts accountable for improving student performance. The program now includes a student testing system (STAR) and a high school exit exam (CAHSEE). These assessments are both aligned with academic content standards, and with an Academic Performance Index (API) for measuring progress. These comprehensive accountability standards put California in a good position to meet the provisions of the 2001 federal law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They are the components the state uses for measuring adequate yearly progress (AYP).

    In fall 2004, the California Department of Education began issuing an “Academic Progress Report” (APR) that combines state and federal reporting requirements into a single document.

    The program began in 1998, but the tests the state has used have evolved over time. The assessments that made up the STAR program in 2011-12 include:

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

    All students in grades 2-11 participate in the STAR Program, including students with disabilities and students who are English learners. However, parents may request in writing to the principal that a student not be tested. Also, the Individual Education Programs (IEPs) of some special education students specify they should not be tested, while other students are eligible for testing accommodations, if those are included in their IEP. All English learners must take the STAR tests in English unless excused by their parents.

    Not every student takes each test. Certain CSTs are subject- or grade level-based (e.g., high school biology, 2nd grade math). CAPA and CMA are taken only by students with disabilities. STS are only taken by certain Spanish-speaking English learners. Details on each of these assessments are found below. From 2005 to 2008, students in grades 3 and 7 took the California Achievement Tests, Sixth Edition (CAT/6 Survey), a nationally norm-referenced test. However, the CAT/6 was eliminated by the state legislature in 2008 to free up federal funds for other purposes

    California Standards Tests (CSTs)

    The California Standards Tests (CSTs) measure the achievement of California content standards in English-language arts, mathematics, science, and history-social science for grades 2-11. Students in kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 12 do not participate in the STAR program.

    English Language Arts: Students in grades 2-11 take a CST in English language arts (which includes writing in grade 7).
    Mathematics: In each of grades 2-7, students take the same grade-level math test. For grades 8-11, the test depends upon the particular math course in which the student is enrolled. These tests are considered to be "end-of-course" tests. California's content standards recommend that students begin Algebra I in 8th grade, continue with geometry in grade 9, Algebra 2 in 10th grade, and complete the Summative High School Math CST in grade 11. (The Summative High School Math test is only for students who have completed that sequence of courses.) However, many of the state's students do not begin Algebra I until 9th grade or later and therefore take the General Mathematics CST, which tests grades 6 and 7 standards, until they complete Algebra 1. A small portion of local districts use an Integrated Mathematics curriculum, an approach that combines algebra, geometry, statistics, and other mathematical knowledge. In those districts, students in grades 8 through 10 take an alternative math test.
    Science: Science tests are based on both subject and grade level. All students in grades 5, 8, and 10 take the same science test. (In 10th grade, the specific topic is Life Science.) Other CSTs in science are based on the specific courses students take. The options include earth science, biology, chemistry and physics. As with math, tests reflecting an "integrated" approach to science are also offered.
    History/Social Science: The CSTs in history-social science are grade-level assessments for students in grades 8 and 11 and an "end-of-course" test in World History for those who have taken the course. The grade 8 test assesses cumulative social science knowledge from grades 6-8, and the grade 11 test focuses on U.S. History. Students who take World History in grades 9-11 take an end-of-course test in this subject.


    The California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA) measures the achievement of California content standards in English-language arts, mathematics, and science. This alternate assessment is for students who have significant cognitive disabilities and cannot take the CSTs even with changes in how the test is administered or with extra assistance (e.g., a dictionary or calculator).

    CAPA is organized into five levels that roughly correspond to grade levels (e.g., Level III corresponds to grades 4 and 5). Most students who take the CAPA take the level that represents their grade, although students with the most significant cognitive disabilities take the Level I CAPA regardless of their enrollment grade.


    The California Modified Assessment (CMA) measures the achievement of California content standards in English-language arts, mathematics, and science. This assessment is for a small number of students with disabilities in grades 3 through 11 who meet CMA eligibility criteria approved by the State Board of Education. The CMA allows these students greater access to an assessment that measures their knowledge of the standards tested. Students with disabilities cannot take the CMA if they are eligible to take the CAPA.

    Standards-based Tests in Spanish

    The Standards-based Tests in Spanish (STS), as well as the Aprenda 3, are known as designated primary language tests (DPLTs), which are taken by Spanish-speaking English learners who are receiving instruction in Spanish or who had been enrolled in school in the United States for less than 12 months when testing began. School districts also have the option of administering DPLTs to Spanish-speaking students who have been enrolled in school in the United States for less than 12 months when testing began, even if they had not been receiving instruction in Spanish. DPLTs are taken in addition to the CSTs.

    Until the 2007-08 testing year, the STS was administered to students in grades 2-7, and the Aprenda 3 was given to students in grades 8-11. Between 2007 and 2009, the California Department of Education (CDE) transitioned from Aprenda 3 to STS for all grade levels. Whereas the Aprenda 3 is a nationally published norm-referenced achievement test, the STS are developed specifically for California and can assess student achievement of the state’s academic content standards.


    The State Board of Education set five benchmarks to indicate a student's proficiency on the CST and the CAPA. These levels are "advanced," "proficient," "basic," "below basic," and "far below basic," and are based on a student's scale score on the test. For example, students who score between 300 and 349 fall within the performance level "basic." The cut scores for "basic" and "proficient" stay the same every year (300 and 350, respectively) but the cut scores for other achievement levels may vary slightly among grade levels and from year to year. The State Board of Education has established "proficient" or above as the desired achievement goal for all students.

    STAR results are reported by the CDE at the state, county, district, and school levels. Results are reported for all students, as well as by certain characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, parent education, or English-language fluency. For groups of students with 10 or fewer valid test scores, no results are reported to protect student privacy. No individual student scores are publicly reported: they may only be reviewed by the student's parents, teacher, and local district officials. Individual student scores are only available from the school or district where the student was tested.


    California's school accountability system, the Academic Performance Index (API) is based primarily on results from the STAR program plus the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). (Results from Aprenda 3 and STS are not included in the accountability models.) The API is an accountability system California first put into place in 1999 with the Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA). The CSTs comprise the majority of the API, which is calculated annually based on a series of measures. The state periodically changes how results from the various tests figure into the API scores.

    When Congress established a federal accountability system in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), California was already using a standards-based assessment system that had designated "proficient" or above as the target for all students. The federal performance measure, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), uses results from the English language arts and mathematics sections of the CSTs, CAPA, and the high school exit exam.

    Results from STAR Testing

    The STAR results for the 2012-13 school year were released in August 2013. Approximately 4.7 million students in grades 2-11 participated in the testing that year, with 56.4 percent scoring proficient or above in English-language arts and 51.2 percent scoring at proficient or above in mathematics.

    Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in English-language arts (ELA) has increased by about 21 percentage points, from 35% to 56%. However, between 2012 and 2013, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in ELA decreased by 0.8%. 

    In math, the gain from 2003 to 2013 was 16 percentage points, from 35% to 51%. However, over the past year, from 2012 to 2013, the overall percentage of students scoring at Proficient or above decreased by 0.3%.

    The science test was first administered to 5th graders in 2004, and to 8th and 10th graders in 2006. The percentage of students scoring at the proficient and advanced levels in the science grade-level tests has increased by 24 points since 2006, from 35% to 59%. In the past year, the percentage of students scoring Proficient or above in grade 5 dropped by 2 points while grades 8 and 10 each saw a 1 point increase.

    History-social science performance remained relatively static in 2013. While the percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced on this standard increased 20 points from 2003 to 2013, the only improvement this year was a one-point gain in grade 11 (U.S. History).

    From 2003 to 2012, all student subgroup populations have improved their performance on the CSTs. Since ethnicity and race categories changed in 2010, 2011, and 2012 to meet federal requirements, the CDE advises caution in comparing these results to previous years.

    For more information

    The California Department of Education reports scores for all students in grades 2 through 11 for all of the STAR tests at You can also find details on the statwide STAR test results in this announcement from the CDE.

    Explanations about California's High School Exit Exam are at

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    Ed-Data is a partnership of the California Department of Education, EdSource and the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) designed to offer educators, policy makers, the legislature, parents, and the public quick access to timely and comprehensive data about K-12 education in California.