On the recent state Academic Performance Index, which is based largely based on the results of statewide standardized tests, almost all of the school districts in California, and nearly all of Orange County’s school districts, saw slight dips in their scores.
While Orange County generally has higher API scores than the state, the average county API score declined six points from 839 in 2012 to 833 in 2013. Santa Ana Unified experienced the biggest drop, down 13 points. Capistrano Unified fell nine points, Fullerton and Anaheim Elementary both lost eight points, Laguna Beach Unified decreased five points, and Newport-Mesa Unified dropped four points.
But that’s just beginning. School districts and parents had better get used to the idea of test score “dips” because California’s schools are likely in for a test-score free-fall.
California is ending the existing state standardized testing system and accelerating its implementation of the new “Common Core” tests, which are described as a “single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt.”
Common Core will have a much more rigorous definition of proficiency and the difficulty levels will be in line with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a well-respected national test.
California already has a large discrepancy between scores on the state’s own standardized tests and its scores on the NAEP. Students who are considered proficient in California in reading and math often fall into the basic and below-basic categories on the more-difficult NAEP.
When New York, which scores higher than California on the NAEP, recently took the Common Core assessment, the state’s proficiency rates plunged. On the old tests 65 percent of New York’s elementary students rated as proficient in mathematics and 55 percent scored proficient in English. On the Common Core tests just 31 percent of New York’s students were proficient in those two areas.
California and New York are further proof that simply adopting a different set of rigorous standards is not guaranteed to lead to student improvement. When the Fordham Foundation was comparing current state standards to the Common Core standards, California received an “A” in English Language Arts, while the Common Core received a “B+.” California received an “A” in mathematics while the Common Core received an “A-.”
Yet, in California and elsewhere rigorous academic standards have not resulted in higher student achievement. The Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst and Michelle Croft found that the quality of state standards was unrelated to NAEP scores. Similarly, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Josh Goodman looked at changes in the quality of standards within states over time and found that moving to higher standards did not correlate with higher student achievement.
Parents should be highly skeptical that simply changing standards to the Common Core will spur higher student achievement.
While districts in Orange County and the state shift their focus and resources to implementing Common Core standards, we should not lose sight of the need for much more disruptive education reform efforts, including improving teacher quality by reducing labor practices that keep low-performing teachers in schools, offering school leaders more autonomy to make decisions about their schools, continuing to change incentives for public schools through a more competitive environment, and most importantly offering parents more school choice.
Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Los Angeles Unified School District, the district in California that now offers families the most choice and has faced the stiffest competition from more than 240 charter schools, was one of the only school districts to post gains in API scores this year.
The student achievement problems with schools in Orange County and across the state haven’t been due to a lack of testing standards. Too many of the state’s schools have fallen behind because they’ve stifled innovation and have prevented parents from choosing the best school and learning environments for each child’s unique needs.
Lisa Snell is director of education and Katie Furtick is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally ran in the Orange County Register.