THE ISSUE: All states test students at least once a year in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. California, in addition, tests students in grades 2, 9 and 10. It also tests students in science, history and physical fitness above grade 4. It requires an "exit exam" for high school graduation. Gov. Jerry Brown wants to reduce the number of tests.
Does California go overboard in requiring students to be tested?
Pia Lopez: No
We love to hate tests, but we all take them. From driver's tests to the SAT, most of us grudgingly acknowledge their usefulness.
How do we find out if students are learning, if not with tests? How do we account for differences in instruction across schools to see if a child is on grade level? How do we know the progress of a school, a district and the state's education system as a whole?
The fact that school systems measure some things but not others does not mean, as Gov. Jerry Brown implies, that things such as good character or love of learning do not matter.
It does not mean that subjects such as the arts or geography should be ignored.
It does not mean that tests themselves have to measure rote learning or factoids. Standardized tests can and do measure problem solving, analysis, synthesis and critical thinking.
All this is up for reconsideration now with the adoption of the voluntary, multistate Common Core State Standards. California's old STAR system, launched by the Legislature in 1997, sunsets and a new assessment system for reading and math currently is under development. It will be in place for grades 3-8 and 11 for the 2014-15 school year.
California has to decide whether to continue to test other grades and other subjects. Yes, it should.
If the complaint is that once-a-year tests in reading and math are driving out teaching of other subjects, do we really want to eliminate annual tests in science and history or increase how they are weighted?
If the complaint is that students don't take the tests seriously, especially in high school, do we eliminate the tests or explore ways to have students share responsibility for performance, such as placing results on report cards or transcripts?
If the complaint is that schools are spending too much instructional time "preparing for tests," do we pare back the number of tests or make sure that what is tested is drawn from the standards and curriculum, so that instruction and testing are integrated?
At the risk of heresy, a balanced system might actually have more tests, not just end-of-year tests. Schools also should have baseline at the beginning and assessments at key points during the year to track every student's learning progress. Students and teachers also should have day-to-day tools to measure learning, so instruction can be adjusted.
We should not go back to the days when there was little or no accountability for outcomes and little or no focus or urgency on student progress over the course of a year.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.
Ben Boychuk: Yes
Pia, is it so crazy to think many schools simply take the path of least resistance when it comes to testing?
If the public school monopoly does one thing well, it's to take a perfectly useful tool and beat it into the ground.
Of course kids should be tested on what they learn. Of course we should have accountability for outcomes. These are trivial truths.
But to dabble in a bit of heresy myself, one needn't embrace the view of standardized tests' harshest critics such as the California Teachers Association, or the late Gerald Bracey, who denounced the tests as "infernal machines of social destruction" to worry we test too much and for the wrong reasons.
When future funding and job security ultimately depend upon meeting Adequate Yearly Progress targets, naturally schools will emphasize performing well on state tests above all else. In rare, desperate cases, administrators will cheat to reach their goals.
Now, I'll hedge a little. Herbert Walberg, a member of the Hoover Institution's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, may be the nation's foremost authority on standardized testing. Like Pia, Walberg advocates comprehensive, systematic testing across the whole curriculum not just reading and math. He has little patience for educators and politicians who argue as Brown does.
(Disclosure: Walberg is also chairman of the Heartland Institute, where until last year I was managing editor of School Reform News.)
"If standardized tests are misused, of course, the program and student learning may be defective," Walberg writes. "When standardized tests are used appropriately, a great deal can be learned about how well schools function."
There's the rub. School reformers talk about the "three legs of the educational stool": testing, teaching and standards. If all three legs are strong, they reinforce each other and the whole. In other words, the tests are only as good as the curriculum and the people teaching it.
We know union contracts forbid rewarding excellent teachers and make firing bad teachers practically impossible.
Less appreciated is the curriculum problem. California often wins plaudits for the quality and coherence of the state's standards in language arts, math and social studies. But if you have a child in public school as I do have a look sometime at their reading selections and exercises. They're boring, unchallenging and trite.
The math standards are better, but it's really no wonder 58 percent of incoming freshmen to the California State University system in 2009 weren't prepared for college-level reading and math. Garbage in, garbage out.
Unless and until we fix the teaching and curriculum legs, building a better testing leg won't matter much.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)