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Commentary: With an API delay, a step toward real accountability

Ellie Herman | March 18, 2014

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Photo: Take Part

Photo: Take Part

California has just suspended the calculation of API scores until 2016—and that’s cause for celebration by those of us who believe in meaningful accountability. I know, many people are freaking out because they believe this suspension of scores will leave schools in low-income communities free to go down the toilet for two full years while corrupt administrators and bad teachers merrily cash paychecks, accountable to no one.

Here’s why I think that logic is wrong—and why I believe this temporary suspension is a great opportunity to create a better system.

First of all, over a decade of API scores doesn’t seem to have done much to stop corrupt administrators and bad teachers. Schools that were terrible before we started testing are still terrible. Where schools were declared failing and taken over by the Partnership for L.A. Schools or other charter management systems, results have been underwhelming no matter who is in charge.

I have heard not a single story of a miracle takeover, but have heard many stories of schools that are as bad as before. In any case, test scores are not the best measure of whether these takeovers have been successful; the first measure is safety, followed by attendance and student attrition rates. Very high teacher turnover rates or large numbers of long-term subs are also serious red flags. We don’t need test scores to measure dysfunction. I wish it were that hard.

Test-driven education may have significant negative consequences for students even in success. Schools in underserved communities with impressive test scores often need to use extremely authoritarian, compliance-driven educational models to produce those scores.

“Our students love to sit and bubble in answers,” a teacher once said to me approvingly as she watched her class dutifully bend to a practice test. But this eagerness to please adults and get the “right” answer may have unintentionally been rendering our students less competent in college and in their future careers, where there are no boxes to check, no directions and no clear right answer. “My students can’t think” is a continual refrain among my teacher friends who bemoan days and weeks lost to tests and test prep.

Test-driven education helps create a two-tiered, unequal education system. As I visit schools across Los Angeles, I’m struck by the fact that schools in more affluent communities are far less driven by test prep—students often come in already at a fairly high level for a variety of reasons: parents with more education, less stressful home conditions, preschool that began when they were toddlers and a lifetime of access to summer school, arts enrichment and individual help as needed. These students will often test relatively high no matter what the teacher is doing. In fact, in affluent communities it seems to be a point of pride among teachers to have no interest in state testing because it would impede their ability to create rich, meaningful curriculum.

Teachers in underserved communities do not have this luxury; their school’s survival depends on producing high test scores, turning schools in low-income communities into high-test-score-production factories. Charter schools are often bashed for their obsession with test scores, but in fact, our test-score-driven system has left them no choice.

API scores are not the only form of accountability. What percentage of that school’s graduates attend college? A solid indicator of school rigor is the number of students enrolled in courses required for UC/CSU admission—if that number is not close to 100 percent, that school is not serious about preparing all students for college. Any of these measures can be ascertained with a phone call from a concerned parent.

In addition, students already take a boatload of tests. I’m perplexed when people argue for the CST’s because “an imperfect test is better than no test.” We have plenty of imperfect tests on deck already: the CAHSEE, the EAP writing and math tests for college placement and of course, the SAT, which is free for students from low-income families. Any of these could be a rough, imperfect measure if you crave the sight of digits.

Finally, Common Core is a radical shift in education. Observing teachers in classrooms across the city, I’ve seen some exciting changes happening. I’m seeing richer discussions and logical, evidence-based answers when students are asked to synthesize multiple texts and justify their own interpretations. Teachers are free to experiment, learn and collaborate in a way they would not if their schools were forced to demonstrate high scores on old tests that are focused on bubbling in the right answer.

Right now, Common Core tests are not ready for prime time—and schools are not ready to take them. Take a practice test online and see for yourself; there’s some promise in the idea of reading and synthesizing texts, but they still seem similar to the just-scrapped Writing SAT, and they’re nowhere close to being “adaptive” or set to a student’s individual level. These tests are designed to measure, among other things, a student’s fluidity with online research, but right now only about a quarter of LAUSD schools have the bandwidth to administer the test, much less teach students the internet skills they’re being asked to demonstrate.

So let’s all breathe and use common sense. Whether we wanted to or not, we’re now participating in a nationwide experiment in education. We know the old system didn’t work. Let’s stop clinging to it. If we’re going to give Common Core a shot, let’s give teachers and schools a chance to build something that will really work. And if you’re really concerned about your child’s school, ask her what she thinks of her teachers. If she complains that they push her too hard and there’s too much reading and writing, chances are, she’s at a pretty good school.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.



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