National Tests Undermine Three Years of Accountability

Published October 18, 2013

The U.S. Department of Education says states can drop their own tests in favor of piloting national Common Core tests in spring 2014 after a tussle with California over a new law enacting the same policy.

California Assembly Bill 484 suspends most statewide tests for 2013-14, and enacts national Common Core tests for English and math beginning 2014-2015. In 2013-14, students will field-test Common Core exams, and their scores will not be publicly reported. This means a potential loss of three years of information on student achievement, because one can’t compare old state tests to the pilot tests, or the pilot tests to the new Common Core tests. This also complicates comparisons of student achievement before Common Core to the effects of Common Core.

“The biggest point of this whole debacle is the Brown administration’s abandonment of accountability based on student testing,” said Lance Izumi, director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. “In its place the administration puts in place nothing. Zip. So this isn’t replacing one type of accountability for another. For at least a year [2014], there will be no real accountability system based on the current performance of students.”

Duncan’s Reversal
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had objected to California’s plan as it moved through the legislature, then did an about-face and told all states they are free to do the same thing. Instead of “double-testing” students in 2014 by administering both state tests and a field test for Common Core, Duncan said states could choose to administer either set of tests.

“This is a dangerous first step to a long-term gutting of state-based K-12 accountability,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners. “These tests provide invaluable information to families, taxpayers, districts, schools, and teachers. With tougher standards and assessments on the way, missing a year of information would be an enormous loss.”

Going Dark
California’s new policy will harm students and parents, said Izumi. “There will be no reporting of individual student scores on the Common Core field tests, which are replacing California’s existing state exams,” he said. “With no individual student scores, a huge tool for helping improve student performance is denied to students, parents, and teachers. Also, in 2014, students would only take a field test in one subject, i.e. either English or math.”

States that have experienced the strongest student achievement gains in the past 20 years, such as Massachusetts and Florida, have stuck to accountability regimes that rely on grade-by-grade requirements, called standards, and tests that measure whether students have reached those requirements, Smarick said.

“What California is doing right now is at odds with pretty strong evidence on how to incrementally advance student learning continuously over an extended period of time,” he said. “They are substituting short-term political considerations for long-term student gains.”

Union Influence
California schools have evaded test results for 40 years, said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. In 1999, for example, the state passed a law requiring teacher evaluations to be based on student test results.

“Not one school district, to the best of my knowledge, did that,” he said.

California’s teachers union is one of the most dominant in the country, he said, and it pushes to minimize testing.

“If you test kids it might reflect badly on a teacher, and that’s the last thing they want,” he said. “They don’t believe in any kind of standardized testing, or that testing should result in any part of a teacher’s evaluation.”

Duncan also said states may petition the national government to delay for one year their promises to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, given the difficulty of implementing Common Core.

“The teacher’s unions’ lot in life is to protect teachers at all costs,” said Sand. “And to keep an industrial union, which teachers unions are in this country, to keep them together, you can’t have good teachers and bad teachers. You can’t have good teachers making more money, because it destroys the teacher-as-widget mentality that the unions have.”

Throwing Money Away
“AB 484 is the implementation of Common Core in the state of California,” said Assemblyman Tom Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks). “Where has this curriculum been tried? We’re getting ready to make this radical change in the way we teach, and giving control really to a central source for the teaching methodology.”

Federal law requires states to test students on math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the Obama administration has waived those requirements in favor of individual negotiations with 42 states. Before creating the “double-testing” waiver, Duncan had warned California that suspending tests for a year might cost them $1.5 billion in federal funds.

“How can we justify spending $1.25 billion to implement Common Core in California,” asked Izumi, “and at the same time we’re not willing to spend a measly $25 million to continue using the existing state tests for 2014? The real agenda here is anti-testing and anti-accountability, with no thought or regard given to the consequences on students and their achievement.”

Another financial concern with Common Core tests is that they must be conducted by computer.

“We have 6.2 million students in the state of California, and we certainly don’t have the money to go out and buy a new computer for every kid in the state,” Donnelly said. “We’re barely keeping our heads above water already.”


Image by Arne Kuilman.