By Daniel Weintraub
With little fanfare and probably not much notice from the public, California is about to suspend a generation of far-reaching school reforms whose intentions were ambitious but whose outcomes were never entirely clear.
Gone will be a set of made-in-California academic standards that polarized the education community. Widely acclaimed by back-to-basics advocates, the detailed benchmarks in every major subject and every grade gave students, parents and teachers a clear road map to what the state expected every student to learn before leaving school.
The standards were linked to annual exams which drove an accountability system ranking individual schools and districts based on their results.
The idea, adopted in the 1990s, was for the state to set standards that would be the same for every school, regardless of the student body’s ethnicity and income. Schools would then be largely free to teach the material however they saw fit – as long as they could show that their students were learning what they should.
But while some teachers embraced the change, many pushed back. They saw the standards as too detailed, too dense and too voluminous. Teachers and parents across the state complained that the entire system forced teachers to “teach to the tests” to get the desired results. Memorization of obscure facts, critics said, was rewarded over mastery of deeper concepts.
Now the Legislature has scrapped the standards and voted to replace them with national benchmarks known as the “Common Core.” The new standards, while plenty detailed, were written to also push students to develop better critical thinking skills.
Lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown also dumped the old tests, since they were linked to the old standards, and told the state Department of Education to adopt new exams. The new ones will go beyond multiple choice to assess students’ knowledge with short answers and problem-solving.
The new tests, though, won’t be ready for at least a year. In the meantime the state has suspended most of its standardized testing — meaning schools, parents and the community will have no way of knowing how they are doing. That planned suspension has led the U.S. Department of Education to threaten to withhold billions in federal funds from California because the state will be without an accountability system.
That conflict will likely be resolved, even if it means California is forced to administer its out-dated tests one more time.
But the deeper question is whether the new standards and tests will be better than what the state had before.
The old system had plenty of critics, but it did one thing undeniably well: shine a light on the gap between the achievement of mostly white and Asian-American children from more affluent families and the performance of black and Latino children living in poor communities throughout the state. That attention forced policymakers and educators to try to close that gap with extra attention and help for the students in low-performing schools.
The test results suggest that, at least to some extent, this worked. The gap remains, but if the results can be believed, both groups have made impressive gains.
In 2002, a few years after the reforms took hold, economically disadvantaged kids were doing abysmally. Just 19 percent of poor 4th graders were proficient or better in reading, and only 16 percent of low-income 7th graders had grasped the math skills expected of them at that age.
But ten years later, in 2012, those numbers had changed dramatically. Fifty-six percent of disadvantaged 4th graders were now reading proficiently, and 43 percent of 7th graders were proficient or better in math.
Students from better off families also improved, from 56 percent proficient in reading in 2002 to 84 percent ten years later. Math scores jumped from 41 percent proficient to 69 percent.
The performance of minorities on high school exit exams and college eligibility also climbed. Arguably, the 15 years since these reforms were enacted have seen the greatest improvement in the education of minorities and low-income kids ever in California.
So, why change?
Despite the test results, there remains persistent skepticism about whether California is teaching and measuring the right things in the right way. Our students continue to score near the bottom on national and international tests. Colleges routinely require freshmen to do remedial work, and business leaders complain that many high school graduates are not ready for the workforce. Suburban parents often see the focus on standardized tests as overkill. They want their kids shooting higher.
It could be that the reforms of the 1990s were an improvement, but not sufficient. It might also be the case that those changes were more important for low-income kids than they were for children from more affluent families.
Kids in stable, well-off families are almost always have the support they need to learn how to read, write and do basic math, even if their problem-solving skills fall short. But low-income children from troubled families often lack the support at home and at school to learn even the basic skills. And they will never reach the stage of becoming critical thinkers if they can’t do the simple things first.
Complicating matters is that the shift in standards and testing is coming at the same time as a transfer of authority over much of school spending from the state to local districts. In concept, this is a good thing. But with it comes a risk: that the locals will not do as much for disadvantaged students without the state looking over their shoulders. Advocates for low-income students are already voicing concerns that new rules under consideration at the state Board of Education will let local schools skate on their responsibilities to these tough-to-teach kids.
As California ends one era of school reform and begins another, policymakers, educators and the rest of us need to be sure that we don’t return to the time not very long ago when more than 80 percent of low-income kids couldn’t read, write or do math at grade level.
Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org