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California Education Testing Does Not Lead To Reform, Why Test???

The rational me looks at the crisis in public education in the United States, typified by the situation in California, and thinks we can’t declare recess until all the analysis and improvements are complete.

But that was before I read this morning’s newspaper. The Academic Performance Index (API) test scores for California students from grades 2 through 10 were published yesterday. For the first time since 2003, California student achievement actually declined last year. The California Department of Education expects next year’s results to be even worse. Now they’re designing new computer based tests that will be “more rigorous”.

There is absolutely NO reason to keep testing the proficiency of our students year after year if the results do not lead to reform.

Computerizing the testing process will not change the results – just deliver the bad news faster.

In business we use numbers to make judgments. We identify what we call the key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure success and failure. The new STAR proficiency numbers are another proof point – public education is failing in California!

Education leaders must stop simply measuring what is and start asking why is it so? Don’t tell me, again, what I already know. Tell me what I don’t know and how this will help to solve the problem. That’s what we business people do with KPIs!

And these numbers are not hard to interpret.

First there is a direct link with the length of the school year and student achievement. California reduced the 2012/13 school year to 185 days and we saw an immediate 1% drop in English proficiency.

Second “English-as-a-second-language” (ESL) continues to be a barrier to achievement for immigrant children. The problem is particularly acute for Latino children.

Third the narrowing of the achievement gap for black and Latino children since 2003 indicates that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had some positive impact even if the performance incentives were perceived by some as punitive. Focus matters!

We know the what – the burning question is so what? Are there any “quick hit” fixes that California schools could develop and implement during this 2013/14 school year that could make a measurable difference while real reform takes longer (and is a subject for another day)?

I would suggest that there are two “quick hits” that would make a difference this school year.

First, approximately 50% of new kindergarteners this year will be Latino.

Schools should provide daily bi-lingual homework assignments in the primary grades. This step would encourage the involvement of Spanish speaking parents in their children’s education instead of leaving them on the sidelines.

ESL impacted schools will receive additional funding beginning this school year. That money could be used immediately to open and staff more homework centers at all impacted (55% ESL) school campuses – to insure that all children get the help they need to do the required work. This does not require the hiring of more teachers but could be staffed by qualified teachers’ assistants – for example bi-lingual college students.

Second, principals could look at the API achievement of individual teachers to learn which teacher’s students consistently over perform – at grade level, at school level, etc.

In business we would call these results “situational best practice”.

The best practice teachers could serve as mentors to help their colleagues improve their materials and methods.

This would be particularly useful as California schools begin the transition from No Child Left Behind to Common Core standards. Higher performing teachers could help the transition by setting correct expectations for their peers – sharing lesson plans, classroom management strategies and help with engaging parents in their children’s education.

Both of these suggestions could be implemented quickly because they happen at the local school level. That is, if the educational establishment is willing to step out of its comfort zone. Educational establishment has shown no eagerness to engage in reform of any sort until there is strong parental outcry – and sometimes not even then. So, I am not optimistic.

And it is because the education establishment has wrung optimism out of me, that the irrational me wonders what if we shouldn’t take the quickest hit of all – declaring a one year moratorium on public education in California?

Teachers would then have to go and find jobs in the private sector. They would find out just how often a McDonald’s clerk can make the wrong change before that clerk is fired!

That might be the fastest way to kick-start the educational reform our children deserve!

Photo Credit: CA Dept of Education

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