Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Mother Lode students may soon spend less time penciling in bubbles on standardized test forms and more writing essays or demonstrating their computer know-how.

The California Department of Education is eager to put the old-fashioned STAR test program behind, recommending a new assessment system Tuesday that moves beyond the rote memorization that educators say has negatively affected teaching.

The Tuesday report by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson called for tests that require in-depth answers and critical thinking. STAR tests are scheduled to sunset in 2014, and the new tests would be given the following school year.

Standardized tests may not even be administered in second-grade classrooms, since Torlakson's report recommended suspending the testing requirement for them in 2013-14.

Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin said she was surprised by the latter proposal but that the move would be "applauded" by second-grade teachers.

Schools might instead have the choice to give second-graders diagnostic tests, which help teachers assess progress rather than penalize schools for poor performance.

Torlakson's report also suggested that the state examine alternatives to the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE.

"This recommendation is interesting because I think there's enough professional opinion that the CAHSEE … (doesn't) really align with what is needed to earn a diploma," said Margie Bulkin, Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools.

Other Mother Lode educators joined in criticizing the exit exam, which tests language arts and mathematics. Bret Harte High Superintendent Mike Chimente has said the test should be combined with other tests already taken by high schoolers, a possibility mentioned in Torlakson's report.

The state report recommended developing new science assessments, as well as new tests for students with severe disabilities. It later said assessments should include tasks similar to what students do in class, with one possible test having fifth graders create a technology portfolio.

All the recommendations must still be reviewed by the state Board of Education, then be approved by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature.

The Tuesday report is part of California's transition to the new Common Core State Standards, the first state standards to be adopted nationally. They will radically change what's taught in class, integrating math instruction across grades and putting more emphasis on nonfiction.

The STAR test program is scheduled to "sunset" in July 2014, with grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 switching to the new Smarter Balanced Assessments the next school year.

Torlakson's Tuesday recommendations addressed the grades and subjects not already covered in plans for the Smarter Balanced Assessments. Kindergarteners, first graders and high school seniors still won't take state standardized tests.

Smarter Balanced tests will eventually have all students answer questions on computers, though schools can still use a pen-and-paper version until 2017.

The requirement that school districts update their technology may strain their budgets, since they're not receiving full funding from the state. Bulkin, who formerly served as superintendent for Sonora Elementary School and Curtis Creek Elementary School, said the transition will be burdensome.

Even Torlakson alluded to the burden created by testing in his Tuesday report.

"It is noteworthy that many of the countries leading the world in achievement place little or no emphasis on standardized testing," he wrote. "Where they do test, they use more open-minded measures...and often sample students rather than testing every child."

The California Department of Education's request for a waiver from the strictest mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act was recently denied.

In the absence of current federal requirements, his recommendations would have been different, Torlakson said.