California School Accountability System Frozen in Time

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Picture it. California. 2014. No Child Left Behind's school performance goals are set to 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math. But are California policymakers, educators, and parents in a frenzy over how they're going to get students up to this level of performance? After all, only 65 percent of California's 4th graders were proficient in English Language Arts on state tests last year.

Nope, no frenzy. At least not over the fact that it's been a dozen years since NCLB was enacted, and one out of three 4th graders still can't meet the state's English Language Arts standards. Instead, there's a completely different frenzy underway: how is the state going to transition to the new Common Core standards and SmarterBalanced assessments it agreed to use next year?

To be clear, the Common Core is a worthwhile effort with the potential to improve teaching, learning, and student outcomes. That's because the new standards aim to ensure students are ready for college and careers and can enter postsecondary education or training without the need for remediation. That's not the case in California today: nearly one-third of students entering the California State University system require remediation, as do three-quarters of its community college students. But isn't getting all students up to existing standards also a worthwhile effort, and even a prerequisite one, if students are going to meet the higher expectations heading their way?

California officials don't see it that way. Last week, the state successfully petitioned the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver to give all of its students a field test for the new SmarterBalanced exams this spring, instead of administering existing state tests to most students and the field test to a subset of students.Their argument was that California teachers are already using the new standards to guide their instruction, so students should be assessed only on that material. There is overlap between the old standards and new, but also significant changes to what students are expected to learn, and when.

These are valid concerns. Yet other states have been able to manage it. Maryland is administering its regular state tests while also participating in a Common Core field test. The state's education spokesman, William Reinhard, explains, "While imperfect, there is important information to be gleaned from the [state test] in the areas that are aligned with the new college and career-ready standards, and federal law requires an annual assessment in reading and math for all students, grades 3-8." In other words, the old standards aren't suddenly obsolete; they're just imperfect.

Reinhard's statement also reveals the other issue at hand in California. California's testing waiver isn't just about instruction. It's also about accountability-or rather, how to avoid it.

Field test results aren't made available to schools, teachers, or parents. So when the state chose only to administer field tests this year, it also chose not to label schools as needing improvement, or evaluate teachers based on student growth, or identify students as performing below grade-level. There will simply be no consequences for performance-good or bad-based on this year's results, because there won't be any results.

With last week's decision, California's school accountability system will be frozen in time for 2014, and many likely hope it will stay that way. Don't forget, California is led by a governor openly skeptical of education data and accountability, has sought an accountability moratorium from NCLB for over two years, and has a powerful teachers union that has fought in the statehouse and in courtrooms against any sort of evaluation system linked to student outcomes.

Some may argue that this accountability sacrifice was necessary so that California
could implement the Common Core well. But by choosing to administer only the field test, California loses critical feedback on whether students are mastering the new (or any) standards. This argument is particularly specious given that California had other options available-options it could have pursued years ago, when it first signed on to the standards.

Other states reveal what could have been in California. Kentucky, New York, and Washington, D.C., for example, modified their existing tests so that they better reflected college and career readiness. Their updated tests provided teachers, administrators, and parents a sense of how well students were performing against the new standards, while also ensuring continuity in data and accountability. Rather than leap from one set of standards and tests to another, these states sought to smooth the transition over several years. Why didn't this approach appeal to California? Wouldn't modified tests, and the feedback they generated, have helped schools prepare for SmarterBalanced tests next year? Instead, California teachers and officials are left without any feedback at all.

California's field test waiver is just the latest blow to strong school accountability nationwide. Other states, through federal waivers and state legislation, have also sought to soften the consequences for schools and educators during the Common Core transition. But California is perhaps the most brazen in that their plan not only jeopardizes accountability, but also transparency. It's one thing to give students, educators, and schools time to adjust to new expectations before there are punitive consequences. But it's an entirely different matter to refuse to collect any data that could be used to help meet these expectations.


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