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 …

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.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Anastasia    

    What a great article, even though the sense of foreboding it rouses makes my stomach knot up. We should brace for a similar outpouring of money by the GF up here in Washington, so that the glories of CCSS and SBAC can be touted to our teachers with a one-day glam-it-up scam, too.

    The idea that the CCSS “put teachers back in control of crafting and tailoring the education of their students” should be taken to the next level by those who believe it: teachers should craft and tailor the exams that are administered to assess their students.

    Please know that the momentum to cement CCSS in Calif. that the [financial wizards behind CCSS] GF is funding is very alarming to your northern neighbors.

  2. Nicholas Tampio    

    The New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) supports the Common Core standards!

    Except when they’re tied to teacher evaluation. Then union leaders Karen Magee, Mike Mulgrew, and Randi Weingarten oppose the Common Core high stakes tests.

    This position leaves a terrible taste in the mouths of parent activists.

    The Common Core standards lead to an inferior education, no matter how well they are implemented. Soon, education reformers, including at the Gates Foundation and the USDE, will push again for the Common Core tests in CA to become high stakes.

    At that moment, union leaders might realize that they should have pushed back against the Common Core State Standards Initiative when parents were looking for allies.

  3. Anthony Cody

    Anthony Cody    

    The rubber will meet the road when the scores come in here in California. Will we continue to embrace standards and tests that declare two thirds of our students to be below proficient? Even if these tests are not used to evaluate teachers, they will have a very bad effect on our students.

  4. David Greene    

    Missed you Anthony. Look to NY and how deep rooted ENGAGING has become to see how that is all going. The difference is you have Brown and we have Cuomo, two very different democrats.

  5. fblueher    

    Teachers should boycott this event!

  6. fblueher    

    What if they CA had a CCSS Summit and nobody came?

  7. roberta ahlquist    

    Ann Berlak gave me your name/this site. This info needs to get out to parents, teachers, teacher educators.
    Email me to continue the conversation.

  8. Larry Lawrence    

    I signed up to go. I was afraid my age and the fact that I was retired might throw me out. But I am signed up to attend in San Diego. Maybe if I dye my hair black I can pass. As a long-time math teacher at both the secondary and elementary levels I worked many years (especially at the UCLA Lab School) to design a program that would engage students at an appropriate level. I am very interested in how this program would deal with individual differences when the Common Core Requirements are age-level based. I suspect it won’t. Anthony, I share your foreboding that this effort is taking us in the wrong direction, but in a nice sounding, great marketing way.

  9. Lucia Hernandez    

    Just boycott it. No more kool aid please.

  10. Laura Ancira    

    Bill and Melinda are going to spend as much money needed to advocate (enforce) the Common Core Standards & SBAC. Especially when the California test scores come in and as the opt out movement is growing in our state. Educators are powerless when it comes to that amount of money. In the millions that is. The power will come from parents and students who continue to opt out and boycott! I wish our teacher’s associations sided with parents on this one.

  11. Mark Ellis    

    Greetings. I appreciate your on-going efforts to share information and perspectives on how testing is (mis)used in education. Indeed, the entire reason for widespread standardized (rather than localized) testing in schools stems from a desire to separate children based on the spurious notion that some groups in society are “smarter” than others (this being a large part of the now discredited eugenics movement in the early 20th century). The effects of standardized testing in education have been exactly as designed – we see “gaps” in achievement among different populations that not-so-strangely match societal biases. This has been the case in the U.S. for over 100 years. As long as we build tests that are designed to sort and separate students, this will be the case. I am totally in agreement we must stop these practices and focus on educating all students and recognizing the potential in every child to be brilliant in mathematics.

    Having said all of that, I do not view the Common Core standards for mathematics as synonymous with testing. While not perfect (wish more time was being spent on revising these now that they’ve been out for 5 years), they do represent a thoughtful, research-based effort to have a coherent progression of standards and mathematical practices designed to support students in making sense of mathematics, understanding the concepts behind the calculations; this is long overdue. In California, where I have been involved with mathematics education since 1992, I have seen more efforts by teachers to support students’ reasoning and sense making in mathematics in the past two years than in the 20 years prior to that. This has come about due to the new standards and our state’s support of their implementation. And in the social media world of blogs, tweets, and pins there are exponentially more conversations today than 5 years ago among educators sharing ideas to support deep, meaningful, engaging mathematics learning; common standards shared by many states has made this possible. It is exciting to see teachers and students alike come to appreciate the coherence of mathematics and develop powerful tools for mathematical problem solving and justification. There is still much work to do since the approach to mathematics outlined in the Common Core…I mean California standards…is new to most adults, teachers and parents and administrators. But in my 20+ years in mathematics education I’ve not seen the sort of positive momentum around truly reforming how students learn mathematics as I see today. And I agree wholeheartedly that the (mis)use of standardized testing poses a huge threat to this progress. Keep pushing back on this!

    Finally, with respect to the July 31 teachers summit in California, I’ve been involved with the planning of this at CSU Fullerton since the spring. My only reason for still being involved has been the non-negotiable position from the beginning by those organizing it statewide that this is by and for teachers; they’ve turned down offers by publishers to give funds and have agreed to have no paid product promotion. Something not mentioned in your post is that Edcamp is working with the CSU, AICCU, and NTC in putting on this event. The funding from Gates has made it possible to do something statewide at a scale that would have been unlikely without it; I wish this was being funded by the state but support for education (and higher education) is not sufficient. But the intent by all of us involved with organizing the local sites is that this is a day to celebrate the work of teachers in California and give them opportunities to network with peers and colleagues. The Edcamp model dictates that the session topics and discussions will arise from the interests of those who attend. I for one want to encourage you and others to attend to add your voices to the mix and share your experiences and expertise about supporting meaningful education for all students. The day will be richer for it.


    Mark W. Ellis, Ph.D., NBCT
    California State University, Fullerton
    Professor, Secondary Education

  12. Sergio Flores    

    Despite and because disagreeing with the “Lots of things California has going on for it,” I concur with Anthony Cody’s prediction. Arguably, I see it a masterful move in the game of manufacturing or solidifying consent for CC$$ in California. Indeed, the indoctrination that started three years ago has already shown its effects –teachers faithfully repeat the dogmas at the altar of CC$$, despite both anecdotal and factual evidence of flaws and problems beyond implementation. Now, it seems that its promoters are working on the consolidation process through massive and visual events prior to start another predictable difficult implementation. Disturbingly, CC$$ is a juggernaut it is because from its inception, Bill Gates has strategically manipulated with generous donations to many key agents, politicians, and stakeholders. The result is that every one important in the business of education has cooperated to built CC$$ an undeserved and deceitful image. Just last year, Governor Brown came with its budget supporting CC$$ with his new funding formula that aligns with CC$$ future; Superintendent Torlakson comes promoting CC$$ as if he himself had created it.; The respectable Linda Darling-Hammond now lending its name and reputation when directing the project to improve the SBAC tests. Bill Gates now in the PR business generously funding events; and arguably the most important of the CC$$ promoters: the California Teachers Association leaders who for years already have use CTA’s logistic power to give validity among the key state leaders at state council. Had CTA remained an objective and rational critic of CC$$, the indoctrination process would have been seriously compromised. At this point in time, it is dubious that we will ever reflect on CC$$ with an open mind and with the option of evaluating it. if only there were an association promoting open debates about CC$$ for teachers to attend. I have to admire the corporate reformers,Bill Gates more than anyone else in the case of CC$,for their flawless execution of their plans. In this case, their timing has been superbly well managed.. With the school year about to start, and a presidential election approaching, these events will shadow or dwarf every complain or protest possible. How many dissenting teachers will stand and speak, or act against CC$$? How insignificant those individuals’ efforts would be given the fact that millions of teachers are going to be busier than ever trying to implement CC$$ properly? Simply brilliant!
    Sergio Flores
    Who wins, who loses, who cares?
    In solidarity.

  13. Virginia Tibbetts (@MrsTibbetts)    

    Dr. Mark Ellis, you say in your comment above, “While not perfect (wish more time was being spent on revising these now that they’ve been out for 5 years), they do represent a thoughtful, research-based effort to have a coherent progression of standards and mathematical practices designed to support students in making sense of mathematics, understanding the concepts behind the calculations; this is long overdue.” A few points here, if I may.
    You do realize that the CCSS cannot be revised because they are copyrighted, correct? I have recently read a wonderfully informative book by Mercedes Schneider entitled Common Core Dilemma. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. In it Ms. Schneider says, “The CCSS must be rigid; it must be fixed if education corporations are to market it to scale (nationwide), page 131. The NGA and the CCSSO have made sure of this, much to the liking of Pearson and Bill Gates. The only changes that can be made are additions and only 15% more. So what you see is what you get.
    Secondly, I understand that you are a mathematics professor, but have your read the standards for k – 2nd graders in both math and ELA? Do you really think that these are appropriate for young children, especially those who come to us with little mathematical understanding and even less knowledge of the English language? To understand the concepts behind the calculations, in my humble opinion, is a higher level thinking skill that is not appropriate for little ones, and will do more harm than good.…/readinginkinde……/why-young-kids-are…/
    Finally, I am not sure why you say that the CCSS represent a “thoughtful, research-based effort” when that this exactly what they are not. No teacher input was used in designing these standards. Educators were only asked to give their input when the standards were being validated. The designers, David Coleman, Jason Zimba, and Susan Pimentel, knew at this point, 2010, they had better get some educator approval. According to Dr. Susan Stotsky, ELA member of the validation team, “The validation team was little more than a rubber stamp, whose requests were ignored for the supposed body of research evidence on which the CCSS was based.” The NGA and CCSSO started “selling” the CCSS in 2008 with the Benchmarking for Success Report of 2008. In it they promised the “initiative will enable all states to adopt coherent and rigorous standards in K-12 math, reading and language arts.” As Ms. Schneider notes, this was surprising promise when the standards had not yet been written, page 70. Not thoughtful, in my opinion, but rather putting the cart before the horse. I have a couple of questions for you. Where is the research on which these standards are based? Have the standards been field-tested, as one would expect in a change so large in scope as the CCSS? Sadly to say, our students are the guinea pigs, and California teachers are the “cooked frogs”.

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