By Anthony Cody.
A high stakes experiment in educational collaboration is unfolding in the state of California, and I have a feeling of foreboding. I am afraid teachers and students in my state are like frogs in a pot that is slowly heating, and before we know it we will be cooked.
Though State Superintendent Tom Torlakson issued a statement in May renaming the state standards the “California Standards,” the state remains wedded to the Common Core. At the end of this month, there will be a full day of events bringing teachers to California State Universities to celebrate the Common Core, funded by a $1.25 million Gates Foundation grant. (You can join in the conversations around the event on Twitter using the hashtag #CATeachersSummit). The state has also approved half a billion dollars to promote teacher effectiveness, much of which will be aimed at supporting implementation of the Common Core.
California has a lot of things going for it. In Jerry Brown we have a governor who seems to understand the dangers of reliance on high stakes tests, as evidenced by his eloquent 2009 letter to Arne Duncan criticizing Race to the Top. We have Tom Torlakson, a former teacher, as our state superintendent of schools. We have a state legislature controlled by a Democratic Party supermajority, and a powerful California Teachers Association that has influence with all three. In addition to this, Linda Darling-Hammond is the chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and has been quite active at the state level. As a result, the state has held off from the worst elements of the corporate reform policies, and is implementing some new approaches that could shift us away from the heavy-handed test-and-punish practices of No Child Left Behind.
This post by Linda Darling-Hammond and Randi Weingarten from a year ago describes the ways California is moving forward with education policies. The state has initiated a new way to fund schools, called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which is delivering a lot more funding to schools with higher levels of needy students. This has allowed teachers in districts like Oakland to negotiate better salaries. There is a new approach to accountability as well, called the Local Control Accountability Program.
Darling-Hammond and Weingarten explain:
A new Local Control Accountability Program will guide and evaluate school spending using multiple assessments of learning (such as Common Core assessments, English-language proficiency, and AP scores), as well as other indicators, like students’ access to strong college and career-going curriculum, parent involvement, graduation rates, attendance, and school climate. Communities are directly involved in decisions about how to use resources and how to measure success.
When these measures identify struggling schools, intervention will come in the form of help from experts who are part of the California Collaborative — a new entity that will provide teams of educators to diagnose what’s working and what’s not — and will support ongoing improvement. Thus, the Common Core standards in California are an engine to drive better educational practice, not a hammer to threaten children, educators, and schools with failure.
But this embrace of the Common Core, and the SBAC tests that come along with it, leads us onto very shaky ground (see this related critique from last fall).
With the active support of the California Teachers Association, California is in the process of a thorough implementation of the Common Core standards. The state has likewise adopted the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) Common Core tests, which were given last year on a trial basis, and this year with full implementation.
The Common Core standards and SBAC tests are a very poor engine to drive better educational practices, and not even the most gentle and thoughtful implementation is likely to prevent them from causing a lot of harm to the state’s most vulnerable students.
My concerns are rooted here, in what we can predict will be the outcomes of the SBAC tests. So far, nobody has seen the scores for the new tests, but this graphic from the State Department of Ed web site shows what is expected.
As you can see, 62% of the state’s third graders will be rated below “proficient.” Given the precedents in New York and other states, English learners and students of color will do poorly, and this will tend to reinforce patterns of inequity rather than repair them. About half of public school students in California are Latino, and 30% are English learners.
Everyone is braced for poor results, but unlike other states, the results will not be used to evaluate teachers. State law prohibits that, for now. However, our students are not going to be protected. They will be labeled as failures. And the poor results will also be used to fuel the narrative that our schools are failing – especially schools with high proportions of the poor, English Learners and students of color.
The state recently ended the use of the California High School Exit Exam, but Superintendent Torlakson has floated the idea of using the SBAC tests for this purpose, which could be disastrous. Exit exams have not been shown to yield any increase in learning, and on the down side, have yielded increased rates of incarceration for those who fail. And again, this will disproportionately impact students of color and English learners.
Serious questions have been raised regarding the SBAC test. Mathematics educator Steven Rasmussen authored a report that states:
SmarterBalanced Mathematics Tests Are Fatally Flawed and Should Not Be Used.
The SR Education Report documents serious user-interface barriers and design flaws in the SmarterBalanced Mathematics assessments. According to the analyses (full report available at http://mathedconsulting.com) …
question after question, the tests:
* Violate the standards they are supposed to assess;
* Cannot be adequately answered by students with the technology they are required to use;
* Use confusing and hard-to-use interfaces; or
* Are to be graded in such a way that incorrect answers are identified as correct and correct answers as incorrect.
These tests have now been administered twice to California students, and major issues have arisen in terms of the adequacy of the technological interface, and the fairness of these tests. Dr. Roxana Marachi has written to the State Board of Education documenting her concerns, including testimony from educators and parents regarding the tests. Just one sample, drawn from the Testing Talk website:
From a Principal/Administrator: “Accessibility in SmarterBalanced”
Our district recently completed the Smarter Balanced Field Test. I was very disappointed with accessibility features of the assessment. I have heard and read that the assessment has unprecedented accessibility features and provides avenues for students to participate. The accommodations and embedded features were incredibly confusing for students with disabilities and struggling learners. Students needed to click and drag or click and highlight. The use of language glossaries were found to be inaccurate on many occasions. I’m concerned about the quality checks in place for language translations and the manner in which student can locate a word to see the glossaries. Likewise, we were told that devices needed to be certified to use with the assessment. There are currently ”no” certified devices. Sad to develop a system that looks good on paper and creates a ”good story” for accessibility but falls short with real world application. To my knowledge there is no means established to get feedback on the accessibility features. That too is disappointing. How will improvements be made if there isn’t a means to solicit input from users? I fear that we will be faced with the same issues next year.
Meanwhile, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the SBBAC in California, is at work behind the scenes:
ETS has lobbied against legislation to require agencies to “immediately initiate an investigation” after complaints on “inadequate” testing conditions. It also lobbied against a bill designed to safeguard pupil data in subcontracting.
In spite of these serious issues, it appears that Common Core tests have little organized resistance. The 325,000 member California Teachers Association (CTA) has made Common Core implementation a priority. Their web site states:
We will be spending much of this year dealing with the implementation of Common Core Standards. They put teachers back in control of crafting and tailoring the education of their students. Critical thinking skills can now be part of our students’ educational foundation, and we can decide how to best teach that.
And while we support the Standards, we do not support the high-stakes testing that some want to bring along with them.
It is our belief that we cannot test simply for the sake of testing. Student assessments must be thoughtful in their purpose and must include both formative and summative pieces so that learning is assessed throughout the year. This includes educators creating authentic, classroom-based curriculum and assessments along with high quality professional development that is directed by educators.
But in spite of this anti-testing rhetoric, the CTA has not taken any clear position taking issue with the SBAC tests.
The Common Core teacher day this summer is just one of the Common Core initiatives the Gates Foundation is funding: As Mercedes Schneider reported last month:
… millions of 2015 Gates CCSS dollars are flowing into California. The Gates grants search engine term, “common core implement” yields three grants totaling $3.5 million to “convene” California teachers for “a single day” of CCSS exposure:
Purpose: To convene large numbers of teachers on a single day in regions across the state of California to generate momentum around the singular impact of teachers on college and career readiness and directly impact teacher exposure to materials, resources and strategies for Common Core implementation. [Emphasis added.]
For this CCSS Teacher Day, in May 2015, Cal State Fullerton accepted $1.26 million; the New Teacher Center (Santa Cruz) accepted $1.1 million, and Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles) accepted $1.2 million.
In April 2015, San Francisco-based WestEd accepted $3.5 million so that WestEd might offer “teacher networks” the opportunity to show how they might “scale” CCSS implementation:
Purpose: RFP (requests for proposals) for teacher networks, designed to deepen the implementation of the Common Core by leveraging effective tools and strategies; teacher leaders capable of scaling them to teachers in national and local networks; and network/system partnerships. [Emphasis added.]
Note that the CCSS grant to WestEd does not specify that the money needs to be spent on California. However, recent Gates money specifically for CCSS in California continues.
In November 2014, UC Berkeley accepted $1 million from Gates “to create a Networked Improvement Community (NIC) to support successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards in Math.”
In October 2014, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation accepted $750,000 “to support Common Core State Standards implementation.”
All of this funding is creating some serious momentum for the Common Core in the golden state.
California is attempting some very worthwhile reforms that deliver increased funding to the neediest students. The state is moving away from policies that mandate the use of test scores for teacher evaluations, or for school closures. However, the embrace of the Common Core as the driver behind efforts to improve school and teacher quality is very worrisome. It is hard to see how tests that label large numbers of our students as failing will expand opportunities for them.
We also have to wonder if we are setting ourselves up for trouble down the road. While California now has a progressive governor, superintendent and a legislature controlled by Democrats, these circumstances could change at the next election. Even now a bill is pending in the state legislature that would allow test scores to be used in teacher evaluations.
So I will be staying at home for the Gates-funded Common Core Teacher Day this month. And I hope that when the scores for the SBAC tests come in this fall, there will be a serious reappraisal of the continued use of these tests (or indeed any standardized tests) as any sort of engine of improvement.