State Education Tests Don’t Snuff Creativity

Parents get road map to follow progress

When I attended my children’s open house this year at Wilson elementary in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, the first thing their teachers did was provide parents with a copy of grade-level content and academic standards for English language arts and math.

As a parent, I am struck by how comprehensive and specific the California content standards are for my child. I know exactly what my children should be learning in the third and fifth grades.

Much has changed in the past decade in terms of curriculum in California schools. Democrats, allied with Republicans in the Legislature, required the state board of education in 1995 to ensure that instructional materials in math and reading teach “systematic, explicit phonics, spelling and basic computational skills.”

In 1995, a 21-member state standards commission began to write rigorous standards. California currently has one of the best sets of standards and content in the nation.

In the report, “State of State Standards 2006,” the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which is under the umbrella of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, gives California an “A” in every category, including reading, math, science and history standards. The institute gave the rest of the nation a C-minus.

For example, the Fordham Institute writes about California’s math standards: “The Golden State’s standards avoid almost all the pitfalls of other states: They call for the use of calculators at the right time and in the right way (the standards do not ‘allow the use of calculators all through Kindergarten to grade eleven’) and build students’ skills in a logical progression that emphasizes computation, problem solving and mathematical reasoning all the way through.”

My own childrens’ public-school experience supports the evaluation of the Fordham Institute. My daughter Katie, now in the third grade, has received an excellent math foundation with attention focused on memorizing the fundamentals as well as solving more complex mathematical problems.

Her teachers use timed math tests called the “Mad Minute” to test students’ ability to complete one-minute drills in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. In addition, the daily math assignments build on math fundamentals to develop more complex skills, including algebra, geometry, measurement, probability and statistics.

In Katie’s experience with the math curriculum in her school, it offers kids lots of practice on the basics while building up more advanced math skills in a coherent and linear fashion.

Similarly, my fifth-grader, Jacob, also has had a positive experience with English language arts, which offer a balanced focus on basic reading skills, spelling, vocabulary, comprehension and writing skills. These skills are reinforced with many opportunities for writing, including longer reports in history and science that reinforce writing skills.

For example, in fourth grade, Jacob completed the California classic mission project for California history that allowed him to utilize all of his English language arts skills as well as in-depth learning about the history of Mission San Luis Rey.

California’s state standards call into question the false dichotomy that teachers have to choose between providing students with fundamental reading and math skills or presenting a more creative curriculum.

In fact, California’s clear standards for English, math, science and history may free up a teacher’s time to work on other subjects and creative projects.

Because teachers know exactly what is expected of their students, they can work on strengthening their curriculum every year, rather than reinventing the wheel. In addition, because the California STAR exam is so closely tied to California’s standards and curriculum, teachers can easily gauge which parts of the curriculum they have been most effective at teaching and which areas may need rethinking.

My children have enjoyed a balance between strong reading and math skills and more in-depth and creative learning experiences. They have participated in chorus, played trumpet, enjoyed science and history every year, read a variety of classic literature, and participated in classroom plays and art projects.

While my children’s experience may not be representative of every classroom in California, they are neither experiencing a “drill-and-kill,” “teach-to-the test” environment nor a “fad-laden,” “child-centered” approach to curriculum.

California has a well-thought-out curriculum with clear standards in every subject for every grade level, as well as a solid test that offers parents and children a specific road map to the progress of their children.

Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation. An archive of her work is here and Reason’s education research and commentary is here.