Dan Walters: California schools' test scores may drop again

08/09/2013 12:00 AM

09/05/2013 9:53 AM

State schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson tried to put a positive spin on it, but the harsh reality is that academic test scores in California's public school system of 6 million students declined this year after years of apparent gains.

Moreover, scores are likely to get worse when new Common Core standards are applied.

"As you would expect for a school system in transition, results varied from grade to grade, subject to subject, and school to school, but the big picture is one of remarkable resilience despite the challenges," he said in a statement as he released test results.

"While we all want to see California's progress continue, these results show that in the midst of change and uncertainty, teachers and schools kept their focus on students and learning. That's a testament to the depth of their commitment to their students and the future of our state."

Like most other states, California is moving away from its own academic standards into the multistate Common Core of what students are expected to learn at each step through the system.

And when they are tested on those standards, which will kick in later this year, chances are very high that proficiency levels will plummet.

That's what happened in New York state, one of the first to make the transition. When New York tested on its own standards in 2012, for example, 65 percent of its elementary students were rated as proficient in mathematics and 55 percent in English. But this year, using the tougher Common Core standards, just 31 percent were proficient in those two areas.

California students were already markedly lower in math and English than their New York counterparts, using state standards, so when California's Common Core testing kicks in, it wouldn't be surprising if proficiency drops to the 25 percent to 30 percent level.

Moreover, black and Latino students have scores well below those of white and Asian American kids – what Torlakson and other educators call the "achievement gap" – so when Common Core standards become the norm, that gap may widen even more.

Closing the achievement gap is the underlying rationale for the overhaul of school finance that Gov. Jerry Brown proposed and the Legislature approved this year – funneling more money into districts with large numbers of poor and English learner students on the theory that they need and will get more attention.

Torlakson says that with Common Core, "we're getting ready to raise the bar in California schools." But are the schools truly ready?

If proficiency levels drop, as seems likely, that will ignite a new debate about the effectiveness of the nation's largest system of public education with all of the familiar flash points, including financing levels, charter schools and measuring teachers' effectiveness.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters . Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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