Magazine article Social Studies Review

The Origins and Impact of California State Testing in History-Social Science

Magazine article Social Studies Review

The Origins and Impact of California State Testing in History-Social Science

Article excerpt

In October 1998 the California State Board of Education formally adopted rigorous academic content standards in history-social science for California public schools, K-12. Accompanying the adoption of similarly rigorous standards in the other three core content areas - language arts, mathematics and science - this Board action signaled the launch of a reform movement that has reverberated through the school districts of California. It was the beginning of an ambitious assessment and accountability program that would seek major upgrades in California student achievement and that promised to hold schools liable for inadequate progress in student performance. The purpose of state K-12 testing as it has evolved is to determine student achievement in relation to the rigorous state standards and to use that data to spur further improvement.

Prompting this massive effort that could alter curriculum and instruction practices on a wholesale scale, not only in California but nationwide, was a series of reports and studies in the past twenty years asserting that the performance of America's students was declining in comparison to those of other countries. Concurrently, business complaints that young adults entering the workforce lacked necessary fundamental skills, and university laments about the need to enroll a substantial number of freshmen in remedial classes fueled the fires of discontent. The popular impression grew that the nation's public schools were failing in their educational mission, and that the U. S. would suffer severe economic consequences as a result.

The critics of the educational system argued that schools and students needed tough, clear standards that precisely outlined what students were to know and be able to do, assessment programs that fairly and objectively measured student achievement, and accountability in the form of significant rewards and punishments for schools. Emphasis was also placed on ending social promotion and requiring a certain level of student performance to earn a high school diploma. As news reports about low performing schools became increasingly common and as people began to question what was being accomplished with the large amounts of money spent on public K-12 education, state and national politicians took notice. Standards-based educational reform became a prominent part of the political agenda.

Urged by the federal government and with strong bipartisan support, state legislatures instituted standards and assessment programs in virtually every state in the country. Though of varying quality and impact the programs were well received by a public that did not know how to evaluate public schools and welcomed the opportunity to see education held accountable. Increasingly subject to performance quotas, job evaluations, management reviews and the like in their work environments, people generally felt school administrators and teachers should be similarly treated. Although some education leaders questioned various facets of the standards and assessment programs, their analysis had little effect as the issue was no longer educational in nature - it had become an important public issue. Nonetheless, those leaders argued that low achievement by certain students was a function of factors outside school control, and that major additional resources would have to be devoted to help these students meet standards.

What occurred in California was similar to what was happening in other states, but with some distinctive elements peculiar to California. Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin was an early advocate of standards-based reform, initiating what she called her "Challenge" program that encouraged school districts to work with the California Department of Education to create standards and apply them. However, Governor Pete Wilson, the State Board of Education (largely appointed by the governor), and the legislature believed stronger measures were necessary. …

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