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Deeper Reforms in California Education Needed
Modest Gains...

[by K. Lloyd Billingsley] 8/2605

Last week the state Department of Education released student test scores from spring 2005. The result is a mixed bag that holds lessons for policymakers.

There are more than 4.8 million test takers in California and five levels of proficiency: far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. Across the state, the ranks of the proficient in English now include 40 percent of students, still 10 points short of half but a gain of five points from last year. In math, another key subject, students registered a gain of four points to 38 percent. That is 12 percent less than half, hardly an acceptable benchmark.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, 54 percent of third-grade students reached the proficiency level last spring, a jump of 16 percent. In English, scores of ninth-grade students jumped 15 percent to 43 percent. But problems remain.

K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

Improvements decrease as students move to the next grade. Scores remain low for students with special needs. And the gap in achievement between racial and ethnic groups persists. The test results reveal that 65 percent of Asian students and 51 percent of white students were proficient in math. Compare that to only 27 percent of Latinos and 23 percent of African Americans.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students test proficient by 2013-14. With 60 percent still not proficient in English, that will be a difficult task. Policymakers need to learn a few lessons from recent reforms.

The modest gains of 2005 can be attributed not to education spending but California's academic content standards, among the toughest in the nation. These should be maintained, or even made more challenging. High standards and high expectations make for high achievement. Also, every classroom should be using textbooks aligned with the content standards.

"Social promotion," the practice of advancing students to the next grade when they have not yet mastered the material, will have to be dumped. Educators should retain the high-school exit exam and reject political correctness.

Teachers are a key factor in a child's education and California makes teachers "permanent" after only two years, a practice shared by only eight other states. Most require three years. Voters will want to take a hard look at Proposition 74, on the November 8 ballot, which extends the period to five years and allows boards to fire teachers with two consecutive years of poor performance. The flexibility to hire and fire teachers is a key factor in the performance of successful charter schools.

Many regular public schools attended by Latino and African-American students are indeed substandard and surely a factor in the achievement gap. This strengthens the case for expanding educational choice. Parents should be able to pull their children out of those schools and send them elsewhere. A good place to begin would be a pilot program for students in low-achieving schools. The goal should be full choice in education for all, as a matter of basic civil rights.

The modest gains, meanwhile, show a welcome trend toward improvement. If state officials want the gains to continue, they should maintain high standards, toughen accountability across the board, and expand parental choice. CRO

copyright 2005 Pacific Research Institute




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