California school reform is at a key moment for success

Fifth-grade teacher Pedro Perez helps Ryan McHenry, 10, center, with a math question during a practice test in March at Folsom Hills Elementary School.
Fifth-grade teacher Pedro Perez helps Ryan McHenry, 10, center, with a math question during a practice test in March at Folsom Hills Elementary School.

California must finish what it started around a series of reforms to our public education system over the past five years.

Recently released results from Common Core-aligned tests show chronic gaps in student achievement in Sacramento and statewide. In a few weeks, the California State Board of Education will release an initial plan for a K-12 accountability system. That system must pull the reforms together and focus on narrowing the achievement gap by measuring the progress of every student. If we get the accountability piece wrong, we will have left the job unfinished and shortchanged our kids.

California adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, then corresponding assessments that promote critical thinking and college and career readiness. With the Local Control Funding Formula we restructured the school funding system in 2013 to invest more in highest-need students and provide more flexibility to local districts. Now, the state is poised to implement the Next Generation Science Standards to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education.

This public education transformation was engineered to lift up all students. But without a clear and comprehensive accountability system, how will we know if students are excelling or struggling? What will the state do when schools and districts experience difficulties?

For more than a decade, California answered these questions with its Academic Performance Index, which though flawed, identified high-performing and low-performing schools. But the API has been suspended for two years and likely will be eliminated.

It is unclear what will replace it. In 2016, state policymakers have to craft an effective system that enables parents and the public to readily know – with clear information and expectations – if a school’s students are thriving or struggling. Someone designated by the state must be responsible for supporting struggling schools and districts, and the state must exert its authority to intervene if necessary.

We have learned a lot from California’s previous accountability system. Test results, for example, showed how students were doing at each grade level. Fortunately, we now have tests that assess more complex thinking and not rote memorization.

The API highlighted gaps in achievement, spotlighting the need for greater equity at the state and local level. But it did not include additional measures to provide a more comprehensive view of whether students are ready for college or a career, and it didn’t offer meaningful support to educators.

Today, we have an opportunity to hold on to what worked, continue to fix what was flawed and fill in the gaps. Without effective accountability, the success of the recently enacted major education reforms is threatened. Our state leaders deserve praise for the groundbreaking work over the past five years, but we cannot stop now. Our work is not finished. On this critical assignment of a meaningful accountability system, our kids cannot afford an incomplete.

Ted Lempert is president of Children Now, a national research and advocacy group based in Oakland.