The California Department of Education has been acting in a way that would have made the Soviet government proud.
The department has maintained a database of the results on the statewide K-12 standardized tests since their inception in 1998. This database allowed parents and reporters to easily see detailed test results from any school and grade level in the state and compare them with any other school or school district. That helped parents to evaluate the quality of their child’s school, helped set district priorities and helped evaluate trends at schools and districts over time. The easy availability of this data was an important part of public school accountability.
Yet state bureaucrats have a problem. Students across the state took the new Common Core test earlier this year, and insiders are saying that the results are dismal. So first, the bureaucrats delayed the publication of the results from mid-August (as called for in state law) to Sept. 9.
Then until an about-face last week, they blocked the public from being able to compare the last 15 years of test results with the current Common Core results, obscuring the new low level of performance.
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So on the website, you could see how California students did in history or science last year, or three years back, but not in math or English – the subjects covered in the new Common Core.
This isn’t the first time the department has participated in hiding information from the public. Since its beginning, the consortium that owns the new federally-funded Common Core test used by California was managed by the state of Washington. Because it was managed by a state government, it fell under open-records laws and its board agendas, minutes and various documents were public.
In February 2013, within a month of a California top bureaucrat’s appointment as co-chairwoman of the consortium, transparency was significantly reduced – no more minutes, agendas or any other important information, even though its decisions profoundly affect millions of public school students in California and across the nation.
Public access to relevant information is a key to a government of the people, by the people and for the people. That California schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson and his senior staff believe in government by bureaucrats and for bureaucrats and fear criticism by parents and the public is not surprising. After all, they are longtime bureaucrats and withholding information comes to them as second nature.
Thankfully, however, the California press corps stepped in and exercised its critical role. Confronted by obvious questions about secrecy and timing, and related stories that would make the low scores even more worrying, Torlakson has apparently relented. The department started restoring the test data on Aug. 28.
Its behavior is all too similar to that of authoritarian governments that excel in hiding information from their people. The citizens and press of California must resolve to always push back against such conduct and demand real transparency and accountability in California’s system of public education – for the sake of California’s children.
Ze’ev Wurman is a former senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education. Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education for planning evaluation and policy development. Both were on the California State Academic Standards Commission in 2010.