California Gov. Jerry Brown is one of the most powerful anti-student testing politicians in the country. So, when given the chance to sign into law a new system of education accountability that would place far less emphasis on test scores, what did Brown do? He vetoed it. In his veto message over the weekend he called the bill “yet another siren song of school reform” that “relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system.”
California Senate Bill 547 would have replaced what is known as the Academic Performance Index, which dates to 1999 and is based entirely on test scores, with the Education Quality Index, which, as the name implies, incorporated a broader range of measures. Schools’ graduation rates, for example, as well as new indices of college preparedness and career readiness, would have been factored in. So would the availability and participation in extracurricular and enrichment opportunities. As for test scores, they would contribute no more than 40 percent of the value of the EQI for high schools and no less than 40 percent for elementary schools.
But that was still too much for Brown. He derided “academic ‘experts’” who have subjected the state to 50 years of what he called “pedagogical change and experimentation.” Instead of what he called the bill’s “turgid mandates,” he suggested the formation of “locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work.” He’s right that test scores alone cannot give a full picture of schools’ performance and that human judgment should inform a good accountability system. It’s hard to imagine outsiders’ critical subjective judgments, rendered after a visit or two to California’s 10,000 schools, carrying much weight. It’s easier to imagine the panels producing lots of “good jobs” and “atta-boys” and “keep on tryings.”
California was ahead of much of the rest of the country when it created its Academic Performance Index but it no longer can claim that status. Dozens of states are working on new accountability systems. But multiple attempts to improve California’s index, by adding in attendance, graduation rates, postsecondary success or year-to-year student growth, have been rejected. Unless it revises the API to show student growth the state will not be able to qualify for as much as $49 million in federal dollars through the third round of the Race to the Top program. The state hasn’t decided whether to apply for that money. It also stands in the way of a request for a waiver from NCLB. So, unless Brown changes his mind, California will keep slogging along with an accountability index that is solely dependent on test scores, which is what the governor says he opposes.