Tuesday, October 04, 2011

A new yardstick to measure schools?

A new yardstick to measure schools?
Legislation on Brown’s desk would overhaul how California measures academic success
Oct. 4, 2011

Senate Bill 547 would still use standardized test results, but those could account for only 40 percent of the overall yardstick.

SACRAMENTO — California’s traditional yardstick of success in public schools may be broadened beyond the existing method solely driven by test scores.

Legislation sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would scrap the state’s reliance on the Academic Performance Index — a measurement that ranks school performance based on a series of standardized exams.

In its place, the state Board of Education would be directed to adopt a more comprehensive set of high school accountability benchmarks that would include graduation rates and career and college readiness.

Some weight, but not more than 40 percent of the overall scores, would still be assigned to how many test questions students answer correctly.

Standards for middle and elementary campuses also would be rewritten to de-emphasize test results.

The legislation requires the new assessment policy, called the Education Quality Index, to be in place for the 2014-15 school year.

Using only test scores to determine proficiency has been turbulent going almost from the outset, drawing protest and praise from Sacramento to Washington. Many educators bristle at having their success judged on how students “fill in the bubbles” while others say that’s the only way to hold schools accountable.

Brown’s looming decision carries with it widespread implications for education in California. Nearly 5 million students in grades 2-11 take the standardized tests every year.

“This bill will change schools to help better prepare kids for the real world,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat carrying the legislation.

But to what extent — and how — are questions left unanswered until the state Board of Education fills in specifics by a 2014 deadline. The uncertainty is one reason why educators still cast a wary eye on the legislation.

“There are so many unknowns at this point,” explained Ron Rode, executive director of the office of accountability for the San Diego Unified School District.

Yet there are positives, Rode said. Generally, the San Diego Unified board philosophy appears to match Steinberg’s goals.

“The board wants to look at critical thinking, creativity — broadening how we evaluate the performance of students,” Rode said.

Teachers have similar reservations. “We are concerned about the vagueness,” said Jim Groth, the San Diego-based representative on the California Teachers Association board. For them, a major question is funding: implementation costs have not been fully vetted.

However, teachers see value in the reforms, particularly in language that could eventually provide districts with more latitude.

“It’s getting away from the one-size fits all, test-test-test mentality,” Groth said.

The Academic Performance Index, or API, has its defenders. Among them is Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, a former San Diego Unified trustee, who argues that the policy has sparked a resurgence in academic achievement.

“Parents depend on it,” Zimmerman said. “Scores may be flawed. There may be too much testing. That can be remedied. But if you toss out the API, the community and the public have no way of assessing what is happening at their public schools.”

The legislation, Zimmerman said, “is an end run around accountability.”

Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego, said he’s not convinced that college and career readiness can be fairly measured.

Diluting existing standards could easily “mask some of the low test scores. We do have a serious achievement gap in this state,” he said, referring to the disparity between some lower-scoring minority students and other groups.

Nevertheless, he supports taking another look at the API, but would prefer that educators take time to craft recommendations and follow those with legislation.

Steinberg insists that “test scores aren’t everything” and parents and the community are not receiving a complete picture of school performance.

Many educators have said they are under too much pressure to produce scores on paper — the result of the No Child Left Behind legislation once hailed by Republicans and Democrats alike.

No Child Left Behind threatens failing schools with sanctions — even firing staff or shutting down the worst performing schools. That approach, critics say, has forced teachers to concentrate on exam results instead of focusing on broader student needs. Some suspect the demand for results contributed to test-cheating scandals by teachers and administrators in Atlanta and elsewhere.

Groth, the CTA representative and veteran teacher, said that pressure to do well on tests robs students.

“Teachers are teaching to the test. The creativity of the classroom has been taken away,” he said.

Changes may be on the way at the federal level. President Barack Obama last month announced a plan to grant states waivers from key elements of the federal law, including a 2014 deadline for all students to meet baseline standards in math and reading...

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