Steinberg’s SB 547 broadens accountability beyond test obsession

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I have a good friend who taught at a high school, while his wife taught first graders. He provided an important observation by explaining that his wife’s elementary grade students would do anything to please Mrs. Smith, whereas Mr. Smith had to figure out a way to please his secondary students.

This transition of instructional approaches reflects the natural development and aspirations of youth. What may have worked to inspire a first grader would fall flat with a rebel-without-a-cause adolescent. A grade-school student rarely asks “Why do I have to learn such-and-such? I’ll never use it in life.” Yet that is the most common refrain of a secondary student struggling with a challenging subject. Effectively engaging teenagers by connecting their formal education with their life aspirations is the key instructional ingredient for high school students.

Policymakers should heed this insight into the adolescent mind, since they determine what schools will be held accountable for and how they’ll be measured. We should not be subjecting secondary students – and their schools – to the same narrow performance indicators as elementary schools. And, yet, under the current accountability system in California – led by the “Holy Grail” of K-12 measurements, the API – that is exactly what we are doing.

Since Academic Performance Index ratings are such a priority for homebuyers, every California real estate agent knows the exact numeric score of all of their neighborhood schools. But does anyone, including those in the media who faithfully publish with great fanfare these annual scores, have a clue what those three-digit numbers actually tell us about a school’s performance? Most would likely be shocked and a little disturbed to learn that the API is primarily based on only a narrow bandwidth of largely decontextualized, fill-in-the-bubble English and math test questions. The API says nothing about a school’s extracurricular and athletic programs; nil about a school’s commitment to inspire civic-mindedness; and zilch about its elective offerings. Nor does this singular accountability index of California schools include anything directly related to preparing students for life beyond K-12 education. This isn’t exactly the transparent accountability the public believes they are getting from API ratings.

SB 547, a measure introduced by the leader of the California State Senate, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), acknowledges these deficiencies. This important legislation calls for additional performance indicators to be included in the API for our state’s high schools, including how well they are doing in preparing their students for postsecondary education opportunities and the real world of work. While every politician seems to be parroting the line that all high school graduates should be “college and career ready,” SB 547 actually does something to quantify this lofty goal. It does so by broadening API scoring for high schools by measuring specific performance standards related to college and career preparation. You can look at the long list of recommended, measurable criteria here, but some of the most notable ones include the number of students successfully completing college preparatory coursework and a sequence of career technical education classes; the academic and workforce performance of students a year following their high school graduation; and rates of students earning an occupation-specific license or certificate while enrolled in high school.

The exaggerated importance of the API cannot be overstated. In California, our elected representatives have codified an educational system in which we only value what is required, funded, and measured. These are the curricular drivers in K-12 education. Therefore, the primary courses being taught in our classrooms today are those subjects that are statutorily mandated, have dedicated funding streams, and are tested to gauge a school’s performance, regardless of that coursework’s relevance to students or the world beyond school. Many engaging subject-matter disciplines and course-sequenced programs that fall outside these drivers are being squeezed out of the instructional day, leaving far too many adolescents feeling disengaged. As a result, a third of high school students are voting with their feet and simply dropping out.

Given the fact that Career Technical Education (CTE) is not required for graduation or college admission, lacks a protected funding stream, and is not included in the state’s accountability system, we have seen an historic decrease in access to these engaging programs in our middle and secondary schools. In 1987, three-quarters of secondary students enrolled in these courses at their high school campus; last year, only 29 percent were able to do so. This unprecedented slide continues unabated, as shop classes continue to get shuttered, Business and Home Ec classrooms get converted to remediation centers, and career counselors go the way of the dodo bird.

The fundamental purpose of taxpayer-funded, compulsory education is to prepare every student to become a self-reliant, responsible citizen. Does anyone believe our state’s current tunnel vision into a school’s performance is a sufficient indicator of a school’s true value?

It is time California policymakers hold high schools accountable for practical outcomes that we all expect and should demand.  SB 547 is a critical means of doing just that

Fred Jones has nearly 20 years of policy experience in the State Capitol as both a legislative staffer and, since 2000, as a registered lobbyist and legal counsel to several education-related clients. His primary CTE-related client is the California Business Education Association, which is also a founding member of Get REAL California, a coalition of employers, labor groups, educators, and others concerned about CTE in California schools.

10 Comments

  1. Good news that someone in government is seeing that the Education Empereo has no clothes!  An example of why API is not a final measure of a school’s worth is Andrew P. Hill High School in San Jose, CA.  Andrew Hill is an International Baccalaureate school in the middle of a very low socio-economic neighborhood that is infamous for drug and gang issues.  Andrew Hill is also a Program Improvement (PI) underperforming school – if you only look at API.  We send children to Ivy League colleges on full-ride scholarships – and we send children to the Regional Occupational Center (CCOC) for certificates in mechanics, HVAC, police and fire prep, veterinary assistant, carpentry, and many other career prep courses.  We have  substantiial second language, transient and special education populations, with many children filling more that one category.  More than 60 percent of our student qualify for free lunch, yet we annually make the Newsweek Magazine index of advanced placement (AP and IB) tests and courses.

    If you look to the past when San Jose was smaller, but still innovative, you will see that San Jose High School had one campus for college bound students and another, San Jose Tech, for more hands-on student learners. Of the five boys in my dad’s family, two went to San Jose High and graduated into “suit” jobs and three went to tech and earned good livings in the trades, building San Jose!  Everyone got a diploma and learned reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, but here was “differentiated instruction” (current edu-speak for meeting the learner at his level and bringing him along to where you need him to be or advancing him to to where he is able to soar) that acknowledged that not everyone wants – or needs – the same training.

    The public will have to decide whether it wants creative, well-rounded learners, or widget-drones who memorize random facts and bubble tests well.  The widget-drone children are much easier for the ruling class to control, but do we want citizens who can protect the democracy or pre-programmed Stepford workers who only test well?  Come to Andrew Hill before you decide. We have amazing students accomplishing amazing (local, national and international) things with the help of amazing staff and faculty.

    But if you only look at API scores you might overlook us.
    Thank you, Mr. Steinberg!

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  2. We’re in strong agreement on the problems here, but not on the solutions.

    What we need to do is change the culture in which we value only what can be measured — not try to measure the unmeasurable. For one thing, it gets ridiculous. Pasted here is the lead to the article “The Test Generation” by Dana Goldstein, the American Prospect, 4/11/11:
    On exam day in Sabina Trombetta’s Colorado Springs first-grade art class, the 6-year-olds were shown a slide of Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” a 1937 cubist portrait of the artist’s lover, Dora Maar, with tears streaming down her face. It is painted in vibrant — almost neon — greens, bluish purples, and yellows. Explaining the painting, Picasso once said, “Women are suffering machines.”
    The test asked the first-graders to look at “Weeping Woman” and “write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable answers: blue, green, purple, and yellow.) Another question asked, “In each box below, draw three different shapes that Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable drawings: triangles, ovals, and rectangles.) A separate section of the exam asked students to write a full paragraph about a Matisse painting.

    http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_test_generation
    For-profit testing firms are reaping many millions of dollars in California — money that could and should be going to our kids’ educational resources.  I have to question proposing even more testing and measuring.  And then there’s Campbell’s Law, which we see in play all the time — most prominently in the Erase to the Top scandal that exposed Michelle Rhee’s so-called reforms in Washington, D.C. as frauds:

    “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell%27s_law
     
    Yes, drop the absurd and dishonest notion that all students must go to college or be damned as failures (along with their K-12 schools). Create (or rather re-create) a practical and effective array of career/technical/life skills options to give non-college-bound students alternatives, motivation and a path to success. Emphasize a broad curriculum, not just the subjects that can be measured on the California Standards Tests.
     
    Just please don’t try to test and measure all those things.
     

     

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  3. We’re in strong agreement on the problems here, but not on the solutions.
    What we need to do is change the culture in which we value only what can be measured — not try to measure the unmeasurable. For one thing, it gets ridiculous. Pasted here is the lead to the article “The Test Generation” by Dana Goldstein, the American Prospect, 4/11/11:

    On exam day in Sabina Trombetta’s Colorado Springs first-grade art class, the 6-year-olds were shown a slide of Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” a 1937 cubist portrait of the artist’s lover, Dora Maar, with tears streaming down her face. It is painted in vibrant — almost neon — greens, bluish purples, and yellows. Explaining the painting, Picasso once said, “Women are suffering machines.”
    The test asked the first-graders to look at “Weeping Woman” and “write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable answers: blue, green, purple, and yellow.) Another question asked, “In each box below, draw three different shapes that Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable drawings: triangles, ovals, and rectangles.) A separate section of the exam asked students to write a full paragraph about a Matisse painting.

    For-profit testing firms are reaping many millions of dollars in California — money that could and should be going to our kids’ educational resources.  I have to question proposing even more testing and measuring.  And then there’s Campbell’s Law, which we see in play all the time — most prominently in the Erase to the Top scandal that exposed Michelle Rhee’s so-called reforms in Washington, D.C. as frauds:
    “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

    Yes, drop the absurd and dishonest notion that all students must go to college or be damned as failures (along with their K-12 schools). Create (or rather re-create) a practical and effective array of career/technical/life skills options to give non-college-bound students alternatives, motivation and a path to success. Emphasize a broad curriculum, not just the subjects that can be measured on the California Standards Tests.

    Just please don’t try to test and measure all those things.

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  4. The principle may be sound, but the implementation — or the rhetoric around it –seems less sound.
     
    As observed in the post, API stands for ACADEMIC performance index. So let us not confuse the public with API that includes non-academic components. Nothing wrong with another index — say VPI — that will include non-academic components, and the final schools ban be measured on a composite index. Something similar to SAT, whether there is the total SAT score but where we also can see the scores on math, reading, and on writing. I am not trying to argue that VocEd/CTE is less or more important for students, but I don’t want the system and the schools to be able to obfuscate the components for the public. Let the parents decide themselves what is important for *their* children.
     
    Which brings me to the post’s rhetoric. ” we have seen an historic decrease in access … In 1987, three-quarters of secondary students enrolled … last year, only 29 percent were able to do so” (emphasis added). The writer implies that students want those CTE course but are not able because of lack of access. Is it really because of lack of access, or perhaps because of lack of interest? Again, I am not arguing how it should be, but rather what is the cause and what is the effect. Seems to me the author confused them to a large degree.

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  5. The problem with this idea that “not all children want to go to college” is that when they turn 30 and have two or three kids, they regret not going to college. They see that the ROP and VocEd classes simply led them away from jobs that can really make a difference in their lives. What percentage of jobs that don’t require a real college degree actually pay a living wage? Not many.

    Am I saying that all kids MUST go to college after high school? No. But they should all be prepared as if they will go. Are you telling me that having three years of math and four years of English and two years of science is a bad thing? Why can’t you require that even of the kids who decide they want to be auto mechanics or chefs?

    It is much, much easier to be an auto mechanic if you understand physics and chemistry, right? You are a better chef if you know biology. You are a much better carpenter if you know geometry. This idea that academic classes are worthless for  group of kids (and let’s be honest, we are talking about kids of color) is plain wrong. 

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  6. My oar in the water is this; Probably 80% of secondary academic issues can be remedied by turning around the way math is taught and learned in grades 3-4. The ROI from a determined endeavor to raise average upper primary math functionality could turn secondary academic  issues on their heads.  HS math remediation is a huge and persistent waste only ended when we attack it at its primary grade sources, where over the course of a year or two after third grade, the unforgiving cumulativity of math derails young minds. Their Teachers need help, desperately.

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  7. I appreciate the interest and Comments in response to my conversational piece regarding the need to broaden the accountability and transparency of California high schools.

    To Caroline, unfortunately, “If it aint tested, it aint taught,” and similarly, if it isn’t measured, it won’t be valued.  Like it or not, we only value what is REQUIRED, FUNDED and MEASURED.  So somehow we have to figure out a way to transparently gauge things other than a narrow form of ELA/Math, and inform the public how schools are measuring up across a broad and valued spectrum of performance.

    To Ze’ev, there’s only one measurement/accountability game in California, and that’s API … until another, potential accountability matrix comes along that will occupy the media’s/public’s attention as that singular index, we need to work within the context of the API.  And on your causation/correlation concern, point well taken, although I do believe the disengagement and dropout realities are proof-positive that secondary students are rejecting the narrowing of curricular options, as well as the decontextualized fixation of our academic elites. 

    Even college-bound students are being underserved in such narrow confines, to say nothing of at-risk or those who fall in the middle. Just look how many college grad’s are compelled into trade schools and community colleges to obtain a marketable skill-set, following five/six years of wandering the halls of academia, only to exit with loads of debt and umarketable degrees.  We can and need to do better.  We simply cannot afford to do more of the same.

    Again, thank you all for your considerate contributions to this dialogue.

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  8. Disagree, Michael Webster. I’m not saying that “academic classes are worthless” and I’m not
    “talking about kids of color.”
     
    Anyone who knows any normal teens understand exactly what I’m talking about, and anyone who doesn’t understand what I’m talking about doesn’t know any normal teens and needs to get out more.
     

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