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Commentary: School districts need local control over high school testing — let us use the SAT

Rick Miller | September 17, 2018

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Christopher Lund, assistant superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, says all school districts have the same questions:

How do we close achievement gaps?

How do we improve graduation rates?

How do we get more students into college and prepare them to graduate from college?

The answers are hard work and education policy that reflects the needs of our students. That’s why Long Beach is supporting Assembly Bill 1951, the Pathways to College Act, which provides more local control to school districts. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Long Beach wants more local control when it comes to testing for 11th-graders. The issue is whether the governor agrees policy change is needed on 11th-grade testing and specifically the SAT, and whether the theory of local control applies to local assessment systems.

In Long Beach, 11th-graders take the SAT because those scores are used by the California State University system to determine college eligibility, and almost all higher education institutions use SAT scores for acceptance. Scores from the state’s mandated test are not. At stake is local control of an assessment system that works best for students, families, and educators and is a model for the nation.

Monitoring students’ progress toward college through annual assessments is key to Long Beach’s commitment to making higher education an attainable goal for every student. For most grade levels, Long Beach holds the state’s mandated tests in high regard. Educators appreciate the state’s approach in providing up-to-date, standards-aligned tests for grades 3 through 8.

The issue is in high school. Long Beach emphasizes preparing all students to graduate college and career ready, and that commitment drives the design of their system. While the state does not require testing for students in grades 9 and 10, Long Beach does. All students in grades 9 and 10 take the PSAT, and they know they will sit for the SAT in 11th grade. For the past three years, Long Beach has provided the SAT during the school day at no charge for its juniors.

Long Beach is providing teachers, students, and their families useful information about their students’ progress toward college and career readiness — when there is still time to use the information to impact results. For support, the district provides students access to a special Khan Academy program where, with families’ permission, personally designed lessons are provided based on students’ PSAT results.

An SAT score makes the path to a four-year university within reach for many more students after graduation. In the California State University system, the specific courses a student completed in high school, grades in those classes, test scores on the SAT, and whether a student graduated are factors that count for admission. Without an SAT score, students are disadvantaged in meeting these eligibility requirements. In Long Beach, 1,000 more students now are eligible compared to two years ago.

State law requires districts to assess 11th-graders for school accountability, and then in districts like Long Beach, 11th-graders spend another day taking the SAT. Assembly Bill 1951 simply allows a small number of districts to pilot using the SAT both for students’ college aspirations and for school accountability.

The state argues that its assessment is superior, while local educators value an assessment portfolio that supports student learning and has real-world consequences. If the state can develop a comparable system, Long Beach and others would be all in. But until that day comes, educators are asking the governor to allow them to pilot a system they believe better serves students.

When it comes to removing barriers to college, local control is being put to the test. The answer is policy change and a signature on AB 1951.

Rick Miller is executive director of the CORE Districts, a collaborative effort among California’s large, urban school districts to innovate, implement, and scale new strategies and tools to eliminate equity and achievement gaps for more than 1 million students.

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