Darrell Steinberg is the epitome of persistence – or a glutton for rejection. Undeterred by a stinging message accompanying a veto a year ago, the president pro tem of the Senate tried again, authoring a bill, heading once more to Gov. Jerry Brown, that would change the metrics of the state’s school accountability system.
Steinberg said he has had a number of conversations with Brown on the matter, and has made amendments to accommodate the governor. But he said Thursday that he still doesn’t know if Brown will sign it – or send it back to him. And Brown’s advisers aren’t commenting about pending bills, as usual.
Steinberg wants to alter the mix of factors that determine a school’s Academic Performance Index (API), which he argues is too tied to standardized test scores, predominantly math and English language arts, along with, to a smaller degree, science and history and the high school exit exam. Multiple-choice tests, he says, don’t really tell you how much learning is happening and, with high schools, whether students are being prepared well for college or the workforce.
Last year’s bill created a new index in which standardized tests would have comprised no more than 40 percent of the score for high school and no less than 40 percent for elementary and middle schools. Other factors for high schools would have included dropout rates, college remediation rates, success with career technical education programs, and graduation rates in a mix that the State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction would have determined. Steinberg built a strong coalition of diverse education organizations, school reformers, and business groups in support of the bill.
Brown has never been a strong advocate of testing, but it wasn’t the veto as much as the accompanying message last October that came as a surprise. In a memorable line, he wrote that the bill “would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.” Brown said quantitative measures can’t capture qualitative aspects of a school, such as “good character or love of learning.” And he raised the idea of a system of school reviews or inspections, “locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine student work.”
Brown hasn’t elaborated on his concept of school inspections since then, so it’s not clear if he has in mind a corps of outside inspectors, as is done in England, or something less formal, conducted within a district for school improvement, not for a rating.
But in SB 1458, this year’s bill, Steinberg authorizes state Superintendent Tom Torlakson to create a school inspection program, as part of the API or a complement to it, if there is money appropriated for it.
Steinberg is less prescriptive this year, giving the State Board and State Superintendent more latitude to choose measures beyond the current components of the API. But the bill would require Torlakson to suggest ways give more emphasis to history and science either within the API or outside of it. And it would authorize including middle school dropout rates, a significant, often overlooked problem.
Other differences between this year’s and last year’s bill include:
- Standardized tests would make up a maximum of 60 percent, not 40 percent, of a high school’s API score (an indication that Brown, despite ambivalence regarding standardized tests, still views it as an essential component of the API);
- The State Board would have until 2016 to adopt new API measures. That would give the state some experience under the new Common Core assessments, which students would start to use in 2014-15, and new science assessments.
The bill doesn’t dictate elements of the remaining 40 percent of the API, but Steinberg said it might include high school graduation rates, percentage of students required to take remediation courses in college, and admission to apprenticeship programs.
The long-term goal, Steinberg said, is to encourage changes to make school more relevant to career and college choices. Components of the API would be the levers to affect curriculum changes, he said.
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