Thursday, October 13, 2011

TOO MUCH TESTING?: Gov. Brown sends a message/The L.A. Times disagrees …kinda/sorta


Students work on a math lesson at Romero-Cruz Elementary School in Santa Ana. There is now widespread agreement that the federal No Child Left Behind Act was overly rigid, unfair to good schools and constricting to the curriculum. (Los Angeles Times)

Students work on a math lesson at Romero-Cruz Elementary School in Santa Ana. There is now widespread agreement that the federal No Child Left Behind Act was overly rigid, unfair to good schools and constricting to the curriculum. (Los Angeles Times)

(The Times thinks) Gov. Jerry Brown was wrong to veto SB 547, but he made important points about the love of learning.

LA Times Editorial |

The Governor’s musing on education: THE VETO MESSAGE ON SB 547

The Legislation: SB 547
The Bill & the Legislative Analysis

October 13, 2011 - The high-stakes measurement of student progress through annual standardized tests has, in many classrooms, restricted creativity, innovation and individuality. It has emphasized the skills involved in taking multiple-choice tests over those of researching, analyzing, experimenting and writing, the tools that students are more likely to need to be great thinkers, excellent university students and valued employees. But, by pressuring schools to raise achievement, it also has ensured that more students reach high school able to read books more sophisticated than those by Dr. Seuss — which, sad to say, was a major problem a decade ago — and tackle algebra by ninth grade.

There is now widespread agreement that the federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its sole emphasis on standardized tests in English and math, was overly rigid, unfair to good schools and constricting to the curriculum. It's equally important to remember that the law was enacted for a reason — to pressure schools to do more for disadvantaged, black and Latino students.

Gov. Jerry Brown weighed in on this conundrum last week as he vetoed a bill that sought to make the state's measurements of schools broader and more meaningful. His lengthy veto message  (right) contained an inspiring reminder that no one talks about learning for the sake of learning anymore. Even before the economy nose-dived, the entire conversation about schooling had been reduced to a mantra about economic competition and good jobs. Those are key, absolutely. But so is learning as a way to develop a thoughtful mind that gathers and uses quality information to reason well throughout life.

At the same time, Brown's message sounded oddly anachronistic, as though he were drawing his lessons about education from his own experiences as an intellectual youngster from an educated, well-off family with access to a heavily enriched education. Yet he obviously knows that student demographics and the academic landscape have changed in California; as mayor of Oakland, he started two charter schools to boost achievement among the city's disadvantaged students.

Rather than adding new measurements of progress, no matter how well intentioned, Brown said, the schools needed to move away from data and toward a more holistic approach to assessing educational quality. "Adding more speedometers to a broken car," he wrote in his veto message, "won't turn it into a high-performance machine."

His suggestion: panels of inspectors to visit and assess schools. It was unclear whether he was suggesting this in addition to the existing testing system or in place of it, but in any case, his message included a few whiffs of the Gov. Moonbeam of old.

We mean that in the nicest possible way. It's far more inspiring to think of education being judged by the engagement of students on campus and portfolios of their work rather than through a narrow snapshot of learning as measured on a few testing days. Brown can be caustic — as he was in his veto message, throwing jibes at experts, academics and, yes, editorial writers — but he also can be visionary. His anti-testing message is sure to please the California Teachers Assn., which has staunchly opposed most aspects of reform, yet it didn't sound like its intention was political expediency. Rather, Brown appeared to write from a deep-seated conviction that the state is not on the path to great education. He's right.

That makes it all the stranger, in ways, that he vetoed SB 547, writtenby Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). The bill would actually have limited the amount that test scores could count toward a school's Academic Performance Index, the yearly measurement of its progress, and would have included dropout rates, which have for too long been virtually ignored by accountability measurements. Beyond that, it would have required schools to show that they were providing an enriched curriculum and preparing students for jobs or for attending college without needing remedial help. The bill intentionally did not spell out how those would be measured, leaving the details to be worked out by a committee appointed by the state Board of Education. Because the governor appoints the board, Brown had an opportunity to bring his school visitation idea into the mix. We'd be glad to see it.

But there are lots of things that panels of school inspectors would be unlikely to find out about a school. They wouldn't see, for instance, how most students are doing; it would be impossible for them to look at more than a sample of the student body (and that sample might be manipulated by school administrators). They might view some nice portfolios of student work, but they wouldn't see how much work a teacher might have put into burnishing them to make students look more proficient. They might interview enthusiastic students, but most important, they wouldn't see all the students who weren't there — the dropouts who gave up. The dropout rate has been shamefully ignored by the reform movement at both the state and federal level, and a distaste for hard data is not a good reason to keep ignoring it.

California is at a particularly awkward stage educationally. It is phasing out its old curriculum standards and tests and bringing in new ones that should be a big improvement. Teachers have to prepare their students for the existing tests but also worry about piloting the new ones; their professional lives have become a hodgepodge of acronyms. Deadlines are looming for states to apply for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, but California is increasingly unlikely to even try because of the Obama administration's restrictive demand that states include test scores in teacher evaluations. A congressional overhaul of the law is also in the works. In the midst of all this, Brown's veto leaves the state with the same test-heavy accountability system that everyone, including the governor, agrees is overdue for a rewrite.

If Brown has a realistic new vision for education in California, he should pull the relevant parties together quickly and develop a concrete proposal that the state can afford and carry out effectively. Just saying no to others' efforts isn't going to fix the car either.

Oct 8, 2011


To the Members of the California State Senate;

I am returning Senate Bill 547 without my signature.

This bill is yet another siren song of school reform. It renames the Academic Performance Index (API) and reduces its significance by adding three other quantitative measures.


“A sign hung in Albert Einstein’s office read “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

While I applaud the author’s desire to improve the API, I don’t believe that this bill would make our state’s accountability regime either more probing or more fair.

This bill requires a new collection of indices called the “Education Quality index” (EQI), consisting of “multiple indicators,” many of which are ill-defined and some impossible to design. These “multiple indicators” are expected to change over time, causing measurement instability and muddling the picture of how schools perform.

SB 547 would also add significant costs and confusion to the implementation of the newly-adopted Common Core standards, which must be in place by 2014. This bill would require us to introduce a whole new system of accountability at the same time we are required to carry out extensive revisions to school curriculum, teaching materials and tests. That doesn’t make sense.

Finally, while SB 547 attempts to improve the API, it relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system. The criticism of the API is that it has led schools to focus too narrowly on tested subjects and ignore other subjects and matters that are vital to a well-rounded education. SB 547 certainly would add more things to measure but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.

Over the last 50 years, academic “experts” have subjected California to unceasing pedagogical change and experimentation. The current fashion is to collect endless quantitative data t populate ever-changing indicators of performance to distinguish the educational “good” from the educational “bad.” Instead of recognizing that perhaps we have reached testing nirvana, editorialists and academics alike call for ever more measurement “visions and revisions.”

A sign hung in Albert Einstein’s office read “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.

SB 547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity.

There are other ways to improve our schools — to indeed focus on quality. What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number but it could improve the quality of our schools.

I look forward to working with the author to craft more inspiring ways to encourage our students to do their best.


Edmund G. Brown, Jr.

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