Editorials

On school testing, California is setting the curve

Fourth-graders in the Twin Rivers School District take a readiness exam to prepare for the rollout of the Common Core testing. As the state has shifted to the new standards, California has canceled about half of its old standardized tests.
Fourth-graders in the Twin Rivers School District take a readiness exam to prepare for the rollout of the Common Core testing. As the state has shifted to the new standards, California has canceled about half of its old standardized tests. rpench@sacbee.com

President Barack Obama’s recent call for more limits on standardized testing is a bit disingenuous. One big reason public school students in most states spend so much time filling in bubbles on multiple-choice tests is that, for the past decade and a half and through two administrations, federal mandates – including some from Obama – have piled on more and more tests.

Federal mandates won’t be going away, nor should they entirely. Nonetheless, the president did acknowledge that kids are being assessed to death in most school districts and did direct his Education Department to make it easier for states to satisfy federal requirements.

Those are all steps toward moderation, and for that he deserves credit. A recent study of the nation’s 66 largest city school districts, including Los Angeles’, Fresno’s and Sacramento’s, found that K-12 students nationally take 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and high school graduation, on average, not counting regular classroom tests, physical education tests or Advanced Placement and other tests routine among students applying to college.

Eighth-graders alone endure 20 to 25 hours of standardized testing each year, according to the eye-opening survey by the Council of the Great City Schools.

That’s like opening the oven every five minutes to test a soufflé – a recipe for failure. Students learn in lots of ways, and test scores, while necessary and useful, are only one window among many into a child’s educational progress, or, for that matter, into the quality of a school or a teacher. Lots of tests may feel good, but they take time and the returns diminish.

As usual, California has been out front in this thinking. In the last couple of years, Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers have significantly dialed down on the proliferation of testing. With the shift to Common Core standards, the state has halved testing time and doubled down on measuring student – as opposed to teacher – progress, bucking the trend in the rest of the country.

Not all those canceled tests have been a cause for cheering. The new approach has meant the suspension, for example, of modest high school exit exams put in place to deter the prior practice of handing out diplomas as a result of social promotion.

But California also has gotten rid of a lot of superfluous multiple-choice testing, including redundant end-of-course tests in math, history and science. Right now, virtually all the standardized tests being administered here are those required for federal education aid. But the assessment system the state has chosen, and the ways scores will be used, are more about improving instruction than merely adhering to federal mandates. That’s as it should be.

The state Department of Education is developing a comprehensive plan for assessment that will be reviewed in March by the state Board of Education. As that plan progresses, policymakers should maintain the existing focus on students while making sure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far.

Limiting standardized testing has been a battle cry of teachers’ unions, who don’t want test scores to be used to evaluate teachers. But some accountability is essential.

So is practicality and balance. Obama’s call to limit testing to 2 percent of classroom time sounds tough, for instance, but an arbitrary cap also could crowd out the essay- and research-intensive Common Core testing, which can be time-consuming. Limits shouldn’t just force kids and teachers back into multiple-choice mode.

More broadly, however, Obama is right to point out that preparing kids for the 21st century isn’t just about hitting some number. There are grades and then there is an education, and there’s a difference between the two.

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