When President Barack Obama declared that “unnecessary testing” is “consuming too much instructional time” and creating “undue stress for educators and students,” it was another sign that the dominant strategy over the past 15 years to use standardized tests to hold children and schools “accountable” in education reform may have reached a tipping point.
California is on course to have a major impact on reshaping the national discourse – and practice – on this issue. The state is in the middle of devising a new accountability system, a massive and complex undertaking in a state as large and diverse as California, that is intended to go far beyond a narrow preoccupation with test scores.
President Obama’s recent anti-testing pronouncements are especially significant because using test scores as the dominant measure of school and student progress has been central to his K-12 education reform agenda.
Arne Duncan, Obama’s departing secretary of education, acknowledged the administration’s contribution to the problem. “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.”
By contrast, Gov. Jerry Brown has been consistent in challenging the role of testing – and has clashed repeatedly with the Obama administration on this issue, even before he returned to the governorship in 2011.
Brown likes to recount what was apparently a seminal experience while he was a student at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, when the only question on an exam asked students to give their impressions of a green leaf.
“Still, as I walk by trees, I keep saying, ‘How’s my impression coming? Can I feel anything? Am I dead inside?’ So, this was a very powerful question that has haunted me for 50 years.”
The point, Brown says, is that “you can’t put that on a standardized test. There are important educational encounters that can’t be captured by tests.”
State education leaders have echoed Brown’s deep skepticism about the excessive use of standardized tests.
“We must always be mindful that time spent testing generally comes at the expense of time our students would otherwise have spent gaining the very knowledge and skills that are the goal of education,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson declared three years ago in a report to the state Legislature on Transitioning California to a Future Assessment System.
Torlakson noted that many countries that “lead the world in achievement place little or no emphasis on standardized testing.” When they do test, he said, “they use more open-minded measures, sparingly and strategically, and often sample students rather than testing every child.” He suggested that if the federal government weren’t requiring it, California would do even less testing than it is currently doing.
Other prominent California education leaders have also been at the forefront of questioning how tests have been used in the national education reform agenda. Most significantly they include Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of the Learning Policy Institute, who is also Brown’s appointee as chair of the California Teacher Credentialing Commission. Two-and-a-half years ago Darling-Hammond took aim at what she calls the “test and punish” approach to accountability. “Without major changes, we will, indeed, be testing our nation to death,” she wrote.
But California has done more than talk about the issue.
The state has suspended – and is considering permanently abolishing – the Academic Performance Index, which for 15 years ranked schools based almost entirely on the test score results of students.
This past summer the Legislature suspended the California High School Exit Exam, at least for the next three years – and has even told districts to award diplomas retroactively to students who did not pass the exam and were denied a diploma because of it during the decade the exit exam was in place.
Also gone, for now, are 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.
One unresolved question is whether California will permanently eliminate these end-of-course standardized tests permanently or whether they will be replaced with ones that are aligned with the Common Core standards.
For now at least, the only standardized tests left that are administered by the state are the Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts, which all students in 3rd through 8th grade and 11th grade are expected to take. Students still take a science test in 5th, 8th and 10th grade because they are required to do so under the No Child Left Behind law. (Students with special needs take a variety of tests designed to take into account their specific disabilities)
What makes what is happening in California especially interesting is that the state is not reflexively against tests in general. In fact, California is a leading backer of the Smarter Balanced assessments aligned with the Common Core – the very same tests that have fueled vehement anti-testing sentiments in some other states, most notably in New York.
That’s because strong backers like Darling-Hammond have argued that the assessments are significantly improved compared to the old multiple-choice tests, measure deeper learning skills, and have the potential to actually drive classroom instruction, not just be used to measure how well or how badly schools or students are doing. California has also prevented Smarter Balanced from becoming a lightning rod for opposition by resisting pressures from the Obama administration to use test scores to evaluate teacher effectiveness.
So rather than being against all tests, the state is moving toward establishing a much broader accountability system, of which tests – improved ones, according to proponents – will comprise just one part. In California, the new accountability system will be based on “multiple measures” rooted in eight “priority areas” established by the state in the 2013 Local Control Funding Formula law championed by Brown.
In addition to scores on the Smarter Balanced tests, these could include measures of middle and high school dropout rates, attendance rates, absenteeism and graduation rates, parent engagement, and “school climate,” as revealed in suspension and expulsion rates and student surveys.
Furthest along in developing a new “multiple measure” accountability system are the six CORE districts, which are developing a School Quality Improvement Index that could inform what will happen in the state and nationally on this hugely complex task.
By March 2016, Torlakson must present his recommendations for a comprehensive assessment system to the State Board of Education, so the next few months will be crucial in shaping where California as a whole will end up on this issue.
Torlakson is being advised by an “Accountability and Continuous Improvement Task Force” which is mandated by state and is co-chaired by Eric Heins, the president of the California Teachers Association, and Wes Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. The 29 member task force includes many of the state’s most prominent education leaders.
All this is taking place as Congress, after years of gridlock on the issue, appears to be moving to replace the No Child Left Behind law with one that will move the nation distinctly in the direction California is already going. As task force member David Plank, executive director for Policy Analysis for California Education, said, “There is general agreement that California is in a position to lead, and to set a new course not only for the state but for accountability in general.”
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.