Swing State: The Downs and Ups of Accountability in California. Will the State's Political Leadership Stay the Course This Time around? (Feature)

By Kirst, Michael W. | Education Next, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Swing State: The Downs and Ups of Accountability in California. Will the State's Political Leadership Stay the Course This Time around? (Feature)


Kirst, Michael W., Education Next


CALIFORNIA, NORMALLY A BELLWETHER STATE, ITS trends and culture spreading as fast as buzz on the latest Steven Soderbergh flick, was a late arrival to the modern school accountability movement. Even the 1994 federal Title I reforms, which required states to develop the three major prongs of an effective accountability system (academic standards, tests linked to the standards, and a mixture of assistance and sanctions for low-performing schools) did little to stimulate California into action. In fact, it wasn't until the results of the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading were released that the state got serious about accountability. California's absolutely disastrous performance--it tied Louisiana for last place among the 37 participating states--was a source of deep embarrassment to a state that had long prided itself on its K-12 public schools and the University of California's eight undergraduate campuses, arguably the finest system of public universities in the world.

Analysts have cited a legion of reasons for the state's slide in achievement: the steady leaching of resources from the schools that was the inevitable result of the infamous 1970s property-tax revolt led by Howard Jarvis; a long period of economic woes caused by layoffs in the defense industry; curriculum experiments with" whole language" reading instruction and" new math" that were at best a distraction and at worst quite damaging; a school finance lawsuit that led to a dramatic increase in the state's authority over school budgets and operations; and a massive influx of new students and non-English-speaking immigrants that almost surely depressed test scores, Whatever the reasons, the result was a sharp drop in the public's and policymakers' confidence in the abilities and, indeed, the motivation of local educators. A political coalition and consensus developed around the ideas that accurate information on student and school performance is needed in order to hold educators accountable and that educators ca n't be trusted to work hard without the existence of positive and negative state incentives.

Since then, California has developed the basic foundations of a coherent accountability system. Nevertheless, despite the progress, many aspects have yet to fall into place at the school level, and there is always the danger that the underlying political coalition will collapse and rake the accountability system down with it. Education reform generally, and in California especially, seems to follow a pattern of raking one step up and two steps back, as successions in leadership and shifts in the political winds lead to the dismantling of earlier reforms and the layering on of new ones. This is certainly true of the accountability movement in California, which has a tortured history of reform and retrenchment that for years left the state with no real measure of how its students were performing. So the question is, Will California stay the accountability course this time? Will the system survive the almost inevitably low passage rates that will occur when the state shifts to a new high-school exit test this y ear? Will the state not only punish low-performing schools, but also give them the resources and technical assistance necessary to build solid academic programs? And will the new provisions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) hamper or support California's efforts to improve schools?

Experiments Gone Awry

California may be a latecomer to the modern accountability movement, but the state has been no stranger to the idea that standardized tests ought to be used to gauge school performance. California state officials began to lose confidence in local school authorities and teachers as early as the 1960s. This concern culminated in the California Assessment Program (CAP), which was first administered in 1972. The program required each student to take a sample of questions from an overall test, a method called "matrix sampling. …

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