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September 19, 2013
Viewpoints: How are the schools doing? This year, don't ask

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(Sept. 19 -- By Peter Schrag, Special to The Bee)

Gov. Jerry Brown's George Wallace act seems just a little forced. Standing defiantly against the feds in the schoolhouse door as the Alabama governor once did is probably not his shtick.

But Brown, who this week suggested American schools were just fine before the federal government "intruded in education," seems to be trying. For a bright guy, that was about the silliest thing he ever said.

The Washington pointy-head in Brown's drama is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who's threatened to punish California with loss of federal money if it suspends its testing program in math and English.

And last week, with a loud push from state schools chief Tom Torlakson, that's just what the Legislature did. So this year, for the first time in 15 years, most state tests in California schools, tests required under NCLB, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, will not be given. Say Duncan's name in Sacramento these days and you're likely to get loud hissing.

The tests may not be given in 2014-15, either. And without the tests, schools won't get the customary API (Academic Performance Index) rating, either. In effect, there will be no state accountability system.

What triggered all this are the ambitious new Common Core academic standards for K-12 schools and the computer-based Smarter Balanced exams, to be "field tested" this year, that California will use to measure how well students and schools are meeting them.

Common Core, developed under the aegis of the nation's governors and state school superintendents and formally adopted by some 40 states, represents a fundamental curricular change.

It's strongly oriented to problem solving, essay writing and analysis rather than the fact-based, bubble-tested back-to-basics curriculum that's been the fashion for the past 30-plus years. The aim is to create national academic standards like most other nations that might - might - raise American students to world-class learning.

It's a big switch - for teachers, for students, for parents. Torlakson, the teacher unions and others in the school establishment who back AB 484, the bill authorizing the suspension, say it's crazy to ask schools to begin teaching to the new Common Core standards, and at the same time require tests based on the old standards.

But as EdTrust West, which advocates for poor and immigrant children in the schools, contends, "that shift should not come at the expense of public transparency about student academic performance. The language of (the bill) could result in two years where California citizens will lose critical information on student academic outcomes." Why not test in whatever curriculum you're teaching, regardless of what it is?

What makes the stakes still greater - and the issues more complicated - is that the introduction of Common Core coincides with the launching of LCFF, Brown's new Local Control Funding Formula, which is designed to give schools extra money for students from low-income families and for English learners.

But since LCFF leaves more fiscal discretion to local districts - also a favorite of the governor - it necessarily requires a way for the state and local voters to determine how well the money is spent.

There's no assurance that the districts will in fact spend LCFF funds on the kids who are supposed to be the special beneficiaries. Deep down, Brown hates standardized tests, but because there will be no tests, there will be no baseline to judge how well the schools are using that discretionary money for maybe another five or six years.

To make things still murkier, when the Legislature enacted LCFF, it ducked the details, ordering the state Board of Education to set the criteria requiring the districts to actually spend the extra money designed for poor children and English learners in the schools they attend.

Given the long and ugly history of non-transparency in school spending, there are good reasons to write those spending rules very carefully.

Districts often hid the vastly unequal amounts going to schools serving the neediest kids, and some may still. They've put disproportionately large amounts into the schools where parents have clout and into teacher pay increases, then back-filled the gap with federal funds that were supposed to be spent on extra help for needy kids, making everything look equitable.

California has begun to address some of those problems. But unless there are rigorous rules for equity and the academic and fiscal data to make certain they're obeyed, and that they work, districts will respond to the same old pressures - influential parents, union power, taxpayer groups - that they always have.

On that front, SB 484 won't help. Until 2015 at least, we'll be flying blind.

And as to Jerry Brown's good old days: Maybe he forgot that those were the days when black kids in the South went to school (all segregated) only five months of the year, when there were no Indian or Chinese engineers, when Japanese technology was a joke and when they weren't building planes in Toulouse that are as good as those built in Seattle.

Parochialism in California is as dumb in 2013 as it was in Alabama in 1963.

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee.

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