California is ahead of President Obama in reducing testing in schools

October 26, 2015

3rd graders reviewing the Smarter Balanced practice test at Bay Shore Elementary School in Daly City

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California’s efforts to dilute the dominant role of testing in schools – prominently led by Gov. Jerry Brown – are getting support from some of the same players responsible for entrenching it in the national education reform agenda over the past decade.

In recent days, both President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for reducing the standardized tests children have to take to 2 percent of their instructional time.

In California, that would amount to no more than 3.5 days per year out of an average school year of 180 instructional days. That would be in addition to the quizzes, tests, Advanced Placement exams and local district “benchmark” tests that students take on a regular basis throughout the year.

In a videotaped speech yesterday, Obama said tests shouldn’t take up so much time that they “crowd out teaching and learning.”

“We need to make sure we are not obsessing about testing, that kids are enjoying learning, and teachers are able to operate with creativity,” he said. “Learning is a lot more than just filling in the bubble.”

But California has already moved aggressively in reducing mandatory standardized tests. In fact, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, one of Brown’s closest advisors on education, said that as a result of Assembly Bill 484, passed in 2013, the state has eliminated half of the standardized tests students were taking. In shifting to the new Smarter Balanced tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, the state dropped nearly all previous state standardized tests.

Among the tests eliminated by the state were standardized tests in 2nd-, 9th- and 10th-grade math and English language arts, end-of-course math tests in Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry, general math and integrated math; all history tests; and end-of-course tests in high school in biology, chemistry, physics and integrated science. 

And that was before the latest test-cutting action signed into law by Brown this month – the suspension of the high school exit exam for the next several years – and awarding of high school diplomas retroactively to all students denied one as a result of failing the exam going back to 2006.

Kirst said that the state is now essentially only administering standardized tests required by the federal government under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including 3rd-through 8th-grade and 11th-grade English language arts and math, as well as science in grades 5, 8, and 10. These are tests that are not optional if California still wants to receive federal education aid. “We are basically down to federal requirements,” he said.

However, Smarter Balanced also offers – and the state has paid for – interim tests in math and English language arts, which are modeled after end-of-year tests and can be given up to three times during the school year. While time-consuming, they are not state-mandated. Districts  can decide if they are beneficial.

AB 484 also asks Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to recommend a new system that could include additional state standardized tests, district tests in some subjects and other ways of measuring student achievement, such as portfolios of student work. Working with the research agency WestEd, Torlakson will present a comprehensive plan to the State Board and the Legislature next March.

Just last May, sounding strikingly like President Obama yesterday, Brown said “There has to be a balance to measurements.” He cited one of the favorite aphorisms of his government, attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything in life can be measured, and not everything that can be measured is worth measuring.”

He spoke disparagingly of standardized tests that begin in kindergarten and “get little children at the age of 5 infected with this idea that everything is measurable, and that they are accountable every day to improve.”

“I can tell you that the idea that you can improve every day for the rest of your life is not true,” he said. “I just think there is a bit of a life cycle. Things go up and go down.”

President Obama’s backtracking on the excessive use of test scores comes after years of California battling his administration on that issue. The most visible instance was the state’s opposition to using standardized test scores as a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation.

The state’s refusal to use test scores for teacher evaluation purposes disqualified California for extra points in its two failed applications for a share of $4.3 billion in the Race to the Top competition intended to promote school and district innovation.

Two years ago, Duncan insisted that California also administer the old California Standards Tests even though it had chosen to give a Smarter Balanced field test instead. He  threatened California with the loss of possibly billions of dollars in federal aid if it didn’t do both. But the Legislature balked at Duncan’s demand for double testing, and Duncan backed down.

Yesterday Torlakson welcomed the reduced testing plan put forward by the Obama administration but noted that California “has been a leader in trying to limit testing. ”

Over the weekend, Duncan took some responsibility for placing too much emphasis on testing in the reforms advocated by the administration. “It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves,” he said. “At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation. We can and will work with states, districts and educators to help solve it.”

Yet when it comes to California, there are still unresolved tensions. California is the only state to have had its application for a waiver for some of the most onerous requirements of the No Child Left Behind law denied by the Obama administration. As a result, California is one of a handful of states that must still meet virtually all the requirements of a law that even Duncan has denounced as “outmoded and broken.”

It is still far from clear what impact the issues raised by President Obama and Secretary Duncan, who will be stepping down from his post at the end of the year, will have on the testing debate, or on California. “I have not seen any data to support the magic number of 2 percent,” state board president Kirst said, referring to President Obama’s call to reduce testing to 2 percent of instructional time.

Even more fundamentally, he said he wasn’t even sure “what the definition of tests being used in this debate is.”

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