California Forum

Is the real problem the test, not California students?

Fourth-grade students in the Twin Rivers School District take a practice exam in 2014, before the rollout of Common Core curriculum and testing. After four years of using the tests, questions remain about how well they measure learning and academic readiness.
Fourth-grade students in the Twin Rivers School District take a practice exam in 2014, before the rollout of Common Core curriculum and testing. After four years of using the tests, questions remain about how well they measure learning and academic readiness. Sacramento Bee file

Several years into the Common Core curriculum standards, and four years into the tests on those standards, California students are not doing well. Not even half passed the English test, and the picture was significantly worse on the math test.

The numbers haven’t improved appreciably over the past couple of years, and the achievement gap for lower-scoring black and Latino students, compared with white and Asian students, yawns about as wide as ever. Eleventh graders – the only students tested in high school – actually did worse than before.

Questions about what’s causing these disappointing results are many, and the answers are, well, pretty much nonexistent. It could be teacher training. It could be that state education funding isn’t going where it should. Maybe we don’t have the right curriculum, or the right instructional materials. Maybe students are confronted by health and social issues that schools simply cannot overcome.

But while we’re looking into these issues – which the new superintendent of schools (whoever is voted into the job on Nov. 6) should make his first priority – there are a couple of bigger yet less obvious questions: Are the ultra-flexible computerized tests comprehensible and useful? Is Common Core working out as we’d hoped? Does it need adjustments? And most important: What exactly do the test scores tell us?

The adoption of the Common Core was supposed to create a higher academic standard for students and to prepare them to succeed at four-year universities or more demanding jobs, as the economy starts shedding cashiers and hamburger flippers and replacing them with automated systems.

Colleges were justifiably complaining that students, even those with excellent grades, fell short on basic writing skills and were unable to base their writing on sound research, reading and analysis. Proficiency in these new tests, then, is supposed to indicate readiness for college, even if students choose a different path. And if they are less than proficient, that supposedly means they’re not ready for college.

Maybe that’s exactly the way it works. The problem is that we don’t know. The link between tests and future success tends to be a lot murkier than psychometricians paint it. One thing’s for sure: More California students are attending college than if the tests were the only accepted marker of readiness. Some 61 percent of California high school graduates attend college, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Of course, those are the graduates; many of the lowest-scoring students probably don’t attend college.

Still, look at the numbers for Alliance College Ready Public Schools, an organization of charter schools in Southern California that enroll mostly low-income students of color. Ninety-five percent of the students who start as freshmen graduate four years later; almost all of those are accepted to college. Yet the number of Alliance students who pass the state test, though significantly higher than students statewide, is far lower than the number heading to college. Relatively few of them complete college, though that isn’t always a matter of whether they’re academically ready. Many first-generation college students feel isolated and uncertain; they don’t know how to pick courses and majors, how to find study groups, how to approach professors. Such issues can be addressed by colleges with a little creativity and effort; UC Irvine has been doing particularly good work in this area.

So is the state’s test a good predictor of whether students will do well in college? The University of California has been considering whether the test should even be used in admissions. It’s also looking at whether the SAT and ACT, the old standards, actually predict later success. Those tests can be heavily coached – and cheated on, which has happened regularly in China and India.

But college readiness isn’t the only use for tests. Despite what naysayers contend, there’s a role for standardized tests in academia. Grade inflation has gripped too many schools. Teachers are under pressure to pass students who clearly don’t deserve it. Testing provides a reality check when high schools cheer their 85 percent graduation rates, while small minorities of their students can pass the statewide test. The state should take a serious look at schools with these kinds of gaps.

The state can’t afford to ignore the poor test results. No one can claim that most California students are learning what they should. But along with concerns about curriculum and instruction, is the test is a true reflection of the learning that’s taking place? It’s still unclear whether it truly measures writing skills, for example. Is the integrated math taught under Common Core really getting students to think more like mathematicians? If the test really does measure readiness for college, decent jobs and life as an educated citizen, why are students who fall short being admitted to public universities that are bursting at the seams, under pressure to accept more and more students?

And if doesn’t, if students succeed in college who did poorly on the tests, then it’s unclear what the test results are proving. The problem is that we’re better at coming up with new tests and goals than at following up to see whether we were ever on the right track.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.