Monday, March 18, 2013


By Tom Chorneau. SI&A Cabinet Report |

Sunday, March 17, 2013  ::  There’s no shortage of skeptics when it comes to the plan to begin testing students in the new common core curriculum standards beginning in the spring of 2015.

After more than five years trapped inside the deep recession, the Legislature has been unable to set aside additional funds to buy the new textbooks, train teachers or make technological upgrades needed for a successful transition.

But there’s a growing number of state officials – led by schools chief Tom Torlakson – who are undeterred by such challenges and would have California schools forge ahead with the landmark shift in curriculum even though some districts might not be ready.

“The kids that were in kindergarten when common core was adopted are now in the third grade and with our best effort – they won’t be taking the new assessment aligned to the common core until they are in the fifth grade,” said Paul Hefner, communications director for Torlakson. “We really can’t wait any longer.”

The standards, developed at the prodding of the Obama administration by a coalition of governors and state school chiefs, provide for the first time national curriculum goals aimed at better preparing students for the global economic marketplace.

The California State Board of Education adopted the new standards in math and English language arts in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, a consortium of states – with California playing a leadership role – is engaged in building new assessments aligned to the common standards that are expected to be ready for the 2014-15 school year.

In January, Torlakson released his recommendations for transitioning to the new standards – plotting an aggressive deadline of just two years out for when districts would begin aligned testing.

But so far, the state hasn’t earmarked any of the hundreds of millions of dollars likely needed to make the transition.

Two legislative hearings have been held this year on the issue and key lawmakers have expressed some serious reservations about moving forward so quickly.

Joan Buchanan, chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said she is skeptical – not of the standards themselves or the direction the state is heading – but merely of “our ability in the next year and a half to make sure that the districts are prepared to actually deliver that high quality curriculum.”

State Sen. Carol Liu expressed similar concerns last week during a hearing of the Senate Education Committee, which she chairs.

“What happens if some school districts are just not prepared?” Liu asked Mike Kirst, one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s top education advisers and president of the state’s board of education. “When the state went through this before in the1990s there was money to go along with the implementation of a new system, so I am a little apprehensive about how this is all going to get rolled out, and how efficient it’s going to become for our kids.”

At that hearing, Kirst joined Torlakson and his top staff as the strongest advocates for pushing ahead and, to some degree, simply forcing districts into the transition.

“I support fully that we give the assessment in the spring of 2015,” Kirst told members of the Senate education committee. “We need to fill in the gaps that are there – finance is, in my view, a gap – but we have done it once so I believe we can do this again but we’re trying it with a higher raising of the bar in terms of student standards.”

Deb Sigman, deputy superintendent at the CDE’s District, School & Innovation Branch, said that there’s too much attention being put on the date the testing would begin – as if that’s an endpoint.

“I think that’s the wrong way to look at it,” she said in an interview last week. “The 2014-15 testing will be the first assessment that will be our first data point in terms of how California students are doing. It’s a starting point.”

Sigman noted that when the current set of curriculum standards were adopted during the late 1990s – there was a similar atmosphere of anxiety. “Initially we had about 30 percent of our students who were at the proficient level,” she said. “Today, 11 years later, we are up to more than 50 percent.

“No one thought in 2001 that we were at the end of standards-based implementation,” she recalled. “I was in a district at the time and that’s where we saw ourselves – we thought we were in the middle of implementation.”

Rick Simpson, the top education adviser to Assembly Speaker John Perez, said he understands the logic of those wanting to press ahead and is not opposed to the notion.

<<Rick Simpson

“We have a dilemma,” he said.

“Do we start giving the new assessments aligned to the standards when we aren’t confident they have been embedded in the classroom instruction, as we said they should be.

“Or, as the alternative, do we say we’re not going to give the assessment until we are confident that the teachers have been trained, the books have been written and adopted by the state board and the instruction has actually been taking place in the classroom.”

Simpson said he is not opposed to moving forward but he doesn’t like the idea of using results from the new assessments for making any high-stakes decisions – such as identifying schools as low-performing, requiring open enrollment or personnel decisions.

“I don’t then think it is fair to use those test scores for any sort of high stakes decision because we have no level of confidence, and probably won’t for a few years, that everybody has been trained and all the textbooks and classroom curriculum is really there,” he said.

Sigman said it is unclear what the federal accountability marker will be once a state has moved into the common core testing – but districts have legitimate concerns over the high-stakes decision issue.

“People are worried about what comparisons are going to be made,” she said. “And that’s a fair worry and we understand that and continue to work with the (U.S.) Department of Education on it.”

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