Gov. Brown calls for ‘balanced’ approach to testing and accountability

May 18, 2015

First graders at Redwood Heights Elementary in Oakland

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As millions of California students tackle new assessments aligned with the Common Core, Gov. Jerry Brown in one of his more expansive comments on testing and measurements last week called for a “balanced” approach to testing, and expressed skepticism about pressures to hold schools more accountable for achieving results, and on students to show constant improvement.

At the same time, he said at a press conference about his proposed revisions to the state budget, billions of additional funds that will be pouring into public schools should make parents feel “optimistic and hopeful that their children will get a better education.” The extra funds, he said, should also help teachers get paid more, create more programs, and to fund those that have been cut during the recession.

“Tests, metrics, measures, these are good,” he said in response to a question about whether the state has sufficient accountability measures in place to ensure that its funds are being used adequately, and that children are making sufficient progress. But he questioned the need for uniform metrics to measure how all children and teachers are doing.

“We don’t want to make every thing into a cookie cutter,” he said. “Kids learn differently. Teachers have different styles.

He spoke disparagingly of a Wisconsin school he read about in a May 11 New York Times article that measures everything everyone does in a school, from janitors to kindergartners.

“No one in the Menomonee Falls School District escapes the rigorous demands of data,” the article stated. “Even kindergartners use brightly colored dots on charts to show how many letters or short words they can recognize.”

The article went on to state that “data has become a dirty word in some education circles, seen as a proxy for an obsessive focus on tracking standardized test scores. But some school districts, taking a cue from the business world, are fully embracing metrics, recording and analyzing every scrap of information related to school operations.”

That, clearly, is not the direction Brown wants to take California. “They are getting little children at the age of 5 infected with this idea that everything is measurable, and that they are accountable every day to improve,” he said. To some laughter, Brown said, “I can tell you that the idea that you can improve every day for the rest of your life is not true. I just think there is a bit of a life cycle. Things go up and go down.”

He said there “is a role for measurement,” including for the Academic Performance Index, the main index used to measure schools in California for the past 15 years. The API is currently suspended as the state implements new Common Core-aligned assessments developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and experts try to figure out how to incorporate other measures into the API in addition to test results, such as measures of college and career readiness.

Without going into details, Brown suggested that the accountability measures that the state currently had in place were sufficient. He referred to two reforms he championed – the Local Control Funding Formula, which allocates more funds to school districts based on their enrollments of low-income students, English learners and foster children, and the Local Control and Accountability Plans, in which districts must show how they plan to spend the state funds they are receiving. He said advocates are now fighting with the State Board of Education “for more metrics.”

“There has to be a balance to measurements,” he said. Quoting Einstein, as he has several times during his governorship, he said “Not everything in life can be measured, and not everything that can be measured is worth measuring.”

GOV. BROWN ON TESTING AND ACCOUNTABILITY 

The following are Gov. Brown’s complete comments on testing and accountability in his May 14 press conference on the May revision of his proposed 2015-16 state budget. 

Question:  Given the infusion of funds into California schools, what expectations should Californians have that their schools should improve?

They should feel more optimistic and hopeful that their kids will get a better education. Everyone says that teachers don’t get paid enough. This will help them get paid more, help create programs, and fund programs that have been cut. There have been a lot of programs that have been cut.

Question:  Do you think we have sufficient accountability in place?

I have taken a middle path here. Tests, metrics, measures, those are good. But kids learn differently. Teachers have different styles. We don’t want to make every thing into a cookie cutter. The best metrics are simple numerical measures. I read in the New York Times, in Wisconsin I think, they have kindergartners taking three-minute tests every day. They have little workbooks. They have to fill in little bubbles red and green to chart their progress. They are getting 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.  I just think there is a bit of a life cycle. Things go up and go down.

I do think there is a role for measurement, even the API (Academic Performance Index). We create a nice number, and then people want to change it. We did change (the part of the API devoted to measurements other than tests) to 40 percent for something else. We now have the Local Control Funding Formula and the Local Control and Accountability Plan. Now the State Board (of Education) and all these advocates, they’re all fighting for more metrics. I think there has to be a balance to measurements as well. As Einstein said, “Not everything in life can be measured, and not everything that can be measured is worth measuring.” So I do think we need some balance.

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