The opening lyrics of a popular song during the 1940s advised listeners, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative (and) don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
It may be state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s favorite ditty, because he certainly adopted its upbeat credo last week in announcing results of the state’s latest series of academic achievement tests.
Torlakson trumpeted “significant progress” in the scores of the 3.2 million California students in grades three to eight and 11 who were tested on how well they are performing vis-à-vis the state’s new Common Core standards.
Generally, California’s students improved by several percentage points from last year’s tests on meeting or exceeding standards in mathematics and English language arts and literacy.
“The higher scores show that the dedication, hard work and patience of California’s teachers, parents, school employees and administrators are paying off,” Torlakson said as he released test results.
Overall, 49 percent of students met or exceeded standards in English, up five points, and 37 percent reached those levels in mathematics, up four points.
One has to wade through hundreds of words that accentuated the positive, down to the 19th paragraph of Torlakson’s announcement, to get the first hint of a negative, to wit:
“One concern remains with the continuing achievement gap, with significantly lower scores among students from low-income families, English learners and some ethnic groups compared to other students.”
Just 37 percent of Latinos and 31 percent of African American students met or exceeded English standards, compared to 64 percent of whites and 76 percent of Asians.
The gap was wider in math, with Latinos and blacks at 24 and 18 percent, while 53 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asians hit the competency mark. And it was even wider when the scores of poor and “English-learner” students were calculated.
About 60 percent of the 6 million K-12 students fall into one or both of those categories, and not only were their test scores markedly lower than those of other subgroups, but their improvements were smaller, which means the “achievement gap” may be growing.
That’s obviously tragic for them, and in the long run for the state. But it also raises serious questions about the efficacy of the state’s new approach to education finance, which gives school districts extra money to concentrate on closing the achievement gap, and about the reluctance of state officials, from Gov. Jerry Brown down, to tighten up oversight of and accountability for how well the extra money is being spent.
Torlakson, Brown and state school board President Michael Kirst want to leave implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula largely to local districts, with only soft monitoring by the state. A new accountability system Kirst’s board will finalize this fall embraces that hands-off approach, as well as using “multiple measures” that downplay test results.
Education reform and civil rights groups have pressed, so far in vain, for a more focused accountability system to guarantee that the extra money meant for “at-risk” students is not squandered.
The new test results indicate that they are at ever-greater risk of failure, and that allocating billions of extra dollars for them without strict accountability is not only foolish but downright cruel.
Editor’s note: This column was updated at 10:27 a.m. Aug. 29, 2016 to include a correct improvement rate for California students who met or exceeded standards in this year's academic achievement tests. There was a five percentage point gain from the previous year.