California can be national leader in reforming testing and school accountability

Louis-Freedberg-2011-x100x1114.jpgBeginning next week, California students will begin taking field tests of the new Smarter Balanced assessments, replacing the mostly multiple choice standardized tests that have been administered in schools for the past 15 years.

This represents a pivotal moment in the rollout of the comprehensive revision of  how California tests its students  and how it will holds public schools accountable.

Virtually every dimension of its testing and accountability system is in motion. The transition is being driven by several landmark reforms, including the Common Core State Standards, dramatic changes in California’s school finance system, a new statewide assessment system to replace the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, and reforms of the Academic Performance Index (API), the main measure of  school performance.

As State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson stated over a year ago, “We must set our sights on a new, more ambitious goal – creating a system that fosters high quality teaching and learning in every classroom.”

Getting there will not be a straightforward task.  One challenge is the sheer scale on which all of this  must be done – California has nearly 1,000 local education authorities, 10,000 schools and more than 6 million public school students.

Another challenge is how to balance the development of a uniform testing and accountability system against the diversity of the state’s schools, geography and population.

Yet another is that the legislation driving the reforms has gone into effect at different times, mandating changes to different aspects of the assessment and accountability continuum, and creating some confusion as to how all the pieces of reform mesh with one another.

In order to ensure that the system that is eventually in place is effective, a new EdSource report identifies eight essential principles  that will help ensure the state achieves its goal by moving the current testing and accountability system in the following directions:

  • From a system with an excessive focus on answering multiple choice questions to one that incorporates multiple measures and that assesses “deeper learning” skills that are needed for students to succeed in college or careers;
  • From a system based solely on top-down accountability imposed by Sacramento and Washington to one that incorporates  assessments administered at a classroom, school or district level;
  • From a system that depends on tests whose results are issued once a year, and typically have no impact on how individual students are taught, to ones that provide more immediate feedback in ways that help children learn and teachers teach more effectively;
  • From a system based mainly on external rewards and punishments to one that incorporates intrinsic incentives that motivate change among individual students, teachers and schools;
  • From a system that is focused mainly on getting children to perform at a “proficient” level to one that measures growth from year to year, motivates all children to do better, and encourages both students and schools to make progress at whatever level they are currently succeeding;
  • From a system that focuses disproportionately on math and English language arts, often at the expense of other aspects of the school curriculum, to a more balanced one that incorporates other key subject areas, especially science;
  • From an overly complex system that is hard for ordinary Californians to understand to one that is more transparent and offers a multidimensional portrait of how students and schools are doing in clearer terms and language;
  • From a system that uses technology mainly to report results to schools and the public to one that uses technology to provide more immediate feedback to teachers and students and to track students’ growth and progress through the 12th grade and into college and the workplace.


All this places the burden of responsibility on state education leaders to ensure  the moving parts are coordinated with one another and to clarify the timeline for implementation. To ensure success, there needs to be clear oversight of the process and a way to manage the competing interests and complexities that are at play.

After more than a decade of implementing top-down assessments that have failed to deliver on their promises, California now has the opportunity to take the lead in the nation in coming up with a system that not only fairly and accurately measures student and school performance, but also helps contribute more directly to better teaching and learning.

See EdSource’s new report, Reforming Testing and Accountability: Essential Principles for Student Success in California, as well as a an assessment and accountability timeline  compiled by EdSource.


Filed under: Commentary, Local Control Funding Formula, Reforms, School Finance, State Education Policy

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9 Responses to “California can be national leader in reforming testing and school accountability”

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  1. Doug on Mar 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm03/19/2014 11:21 pm

    • 000

    The person that replied using the NFL analogy just has no clue and is most likely one of those that are looking to make a buck by privatizing public education.

    The first indicator is that there is no tenure in our state of California, public school teachers are allowed due process after they have completed a two year probationary period. After this two year period the only issue is that there is a burden of proof that the person is not fulfilling their end of a negotiated contract that is agreed upon by two sides. A teacher that is ineffective in the classroom can be dismissed but there must be documentation showing the lack of effectiveness. The only reason a substandard person is left in the classroom is that the administrator[s] in charge are not doing their job.

    The second is that it has been proven in study after study that student achievement is increased when they have more experienced teachers at the head of the class. Using the NFL analogy, I do not know of any Hall of Fame quarterbacks with only one season under their belts. Tom Brady and Payton Manning have been at the helm for quite a few years and it seems that due to the experience they have gained over time, they are head and shoulder above the others.

    Lastly, using the NFL to vilify the pitiful salaries that teachers receive is just utterly stupid. The NFL has a minimum first year salary of I believe $175k, and has yearly increases guaranteed, based solely on years of service. Unlike teachers, NFL athletes may increase their individual salaries but they may never receive less than the guaranteed yearly allotment [again – increases yearly]. An NFL player must be physical, run fast and be able to knock people down to compete in his world of entertainment. Conversely, a teacher must be a college graduate, take a fifth year of teacher preparation. After that has been done teachers need to acquire a masters degree and then throughout the rest of their career there is an expectation for all teachers to participate yearly in some form of professional development.

    I guess because everyone has attended school at sometime they may portray themselves as experts in the field of education.

  2. Floyd Thursby on Mar 19, 2014 at 1:06 pm03/19/2014 1:06 pm

    • 000

    What if the NFL Played by Teachers’ Rules?
    Imagine a league where players who make it through three seasons could never be cut from the roster. By Fran Tarkenton
    October 3,2011
    Imagine the National Football League in an alternate reality. Each player’s salary is based on how long he’s been in the league. It’s about tenure, not talent. The same scale is used for every player, no matter whether he’s an All-Pro quarterback or the last man on the roster. For every year a player’s been in this NFL, he gets a bump in pay. The only difference between Tom Brady and the worst player in the league is a few years of step increases. And if a player makes it through his third season, he can never be cut from the roster until he chooses to retire, except in the most extreme cases of misconduct.
    Let’s face the truth about this alternate reality: The on-field product would steadily decline. Why bother playing harder or better and risk getting hurt?
    No matter how much money was poured into the league, it wouldn’t get better. In fact, in many ways the disincentive to play harder or to try to stand out would be even stronger with more money.
    Of course, a few wild-eyed reformers might suggest the whole system was broken and needed revamping to reward better results, but the players union would refuse to budge and then demonize the reform advocates: “They hate football. They hate the players. They hate the fans.” The only thing that might get done would be building bigger, more expensive stadiums and installing more state-of-the-art technology. But that just wouldn’t help.
    If you haven’t figured it out yet, the NFL in this alternate reality is the real -life American public education system. Teachers’ salaries have no relation to whether teachers are actually good at their job—excellence isn’t rewarded, and neither is extra effort. Pay is almost solely determined by how many years they’ve been teaching. That’s it. After a teacher earns tenure, which is often essentially automatic, firing him or her becomes almost impossible, no matter how bad the performance might be. And if you criticize the system, you’re demonized for hating teachers and not believing in our nation’s children.


    • navigio on Mar 20, 2014 at 4:32 pm03/20/2014 4:32 pm

      • 000

      i criticize the system all the the time and am not demonized for hating teachers nor for not believing in our nation’s children. nb. the nfl has a union. :-)

      schools need collaboration not competition. cut-throat dynamics is good for environments where the goal is to make money at all costs, not good for those that desire to be most effective at providing a service. i think you drank too much silicon kool-aid..

  3. Educator on Mar 19, 2014 at 11:45 am03/19/2014 11:45 am

    • 000

    From one that puts only ultimate value on academic achievement (which is important), to one that also values the other more difficult to measure things that schools do, like civic engagement, communication, getting along, caring, etc.


    • Michael G on Mar 19, 2014 at 1:48 pm03/19/2014 1:48 pm

      • 000

      I am not sure I understand your comment, but I agree that civic engagement, communication, caring, (and I’ll throw in creativity) are important. But how do you measure it? If you can’t measure measure it, you can’t test for it, and if you can’t test for it, how do you know that your teaching of the topic is working?

      I think there should be some thought put into measuring these things, because they ARE important. I suspect there may be a lot of wishful thinking in schools that they are successful in these improtant areas when they may not be. We can’t tell unless we have some way of measuring progress.

      • Educator on Mar 19, 2014 at 10:36 pm03/19/2014 10:36 pm

        • 000

        This is a good blog that struggles with this question (not really the measurement part though).

        The author has written commentary for EdSource before. I guess my thought is: By focusing almost entirely on things that can be measured, are schools pushing out the things that can’t be measured? There’s some evidence to support this, like cuts in arts and extra curricular programs. Schools are left with an incentive to focus on NCLB types of things like math and english scores.

        • Michael G on Mar 20, 2014 at 3:01 pm03/20/2014 3:01 pm

          • 000

          Well, to be fair to those making up the tests, they can only test things that can be measured. Unless you are arguing that there should be no testing at all, then what you seem to be implying is that the schools are by their actions saying “we can’t teach both math/science AND art.”

          I think you can teach both but you still come up against the problem of proving that those things are actually being taught. How do you do that if you have no metric of progress in those areas? There is a finite amount of money and if you want some of it, you have to prove that you are making good use of it. Just saying “we teach creative expression and caring” sounds to most people too vague to justify spending scarce resources on unless you can make a case that stands up to scrutiny.

          If the arts are being cut, it may not be because of testing measureable things but that in today’s economy there may be a general focus on being employable. If students sign up for a computer science elective instead of an art elective, eventually you will have to cut art or finance art classes with one or two students while the science/math teachers are struggling with class sizes of 50.

          In the last 20 years of bubble economies, we could pay for things with only a vauge sense that they were useful. We are in an era of increasing scarcity.

  4. Doug on Mar 19, 2014 at 6:27 am03/19/2014 6:27 am

    • 000

    With all of the new technology available, now is the time to move testing from the middle of the junior [11th] year in high school to grade 12. The arguments for testing in grade 11 such as, the lengthy time to grade and report due to the burden of being paper and pencil are now moot.

    This will put back some relevance/accountability to the senior year in high school, test what the students have learned over their complete high school [not partial] career and better serve teachers in the delivery of their curriculum.

  5. Michael G on Mar 19, 2014 at 5:56 am03/19/2014 5:56 am

    • 000

    This could be the start of something really big. Once all the networking issues are sorted out, every school will have a high speed online system capable of providing rapidly graded tests, quizzes, work “sheets” for much (certainly not all) of the basic building blocks of math, science, reading, social science.

    The (valid) complaint that CST feedback is too infrequent and too late to be useful to teachers could be turned on its head with subsections of each year’s stadnards available at any time for any student.

    Something like Algebra 1, which is a key stumbling block for so many, could be partioined into subsections with students able to take as many “tests” as necessary to acheive mastery of each section. Students could go at their own pace, faster or slower as needed.

    I am tutoring a lot of HS kids now, and even many A students of those taking AP Calculus and AP Physics are sadly deficient in basic things like division, laws of exponents, mental math for multiplying 2 digit numbers. Every time I see new students I have to spend some time every session getting them comfortable with squaring numbers up to 16, scientific notation math, etc., etc.

    My sons went through the Kumon tutoring system in math which is a lot of drill sheets. BUT, you cannot go on to the next section until you acheive 100% on the section you are working on. You just keep doing worksheets and taing “tests” until you get 100%. This actually works. My sons protested endlessly about their twice weekly trips to Kumon, but they see now in HS and college how much easier much of science and math is for them than many of their classmates. The only problem was they went faster than the schools could keep up so they were bored in school for a long time.

    “Mastery learning” was a big idea back in the late 20th century which went nowhere because of the practical difficulties of making sure every student acheived complete mastery before moving on. Also a big idea in the 1070s and 1980s was each student going at their own pace. With the right application of this now widely available technology, and teachers trained in how to use it, all of these great ideas could be viable.

    This could lighten the tedious part of the load allowing teachers to give more time to individual instruction.

    A friend of mine went to med school back in the 1970s. He said there was a lot to learn in biochem but all the tests were online (dumb terminals hooked up to a central computer) and he could go in any time of the day or night and take a test. If he didn’t get the grade he wanted, he would study some more and take the test again. (always a different set of questions, of course). And so he managed to learn all that he needed to be a doctor.

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