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Test of Commitment to Kids

August 19, 2004

California schools' disappointing results on the latest batch of standardized tests might mean nothing -- a statistical burp, bad weather during the testing period, a year of regathering, who knows? The underlying worry, of course, is that this is part of a pattern that haunts high-stakes standardized tests: The first year's scores are low. Then there are a couple of years in which the scores go up sharply as teachers learn how to teach their students what's on the test and administrators bring in a new program or two to help out. And then -- flat-line.

This year's results show that not only are students generally not moving up, but poor, black and Latino students are as far behind their more affluent white and Asian peers as they were before reforms were instituted.

The easy solutions are used up. Open Court, the highly scripted phonics program that was going to teach all students to read, helped some but didn't come close to creating a literate crop of students. The state's charter schools, though they did at least as well as public schools on a recent national test, haven't been a magic bullet.

It's been easy to talk about reform and accountability and a new curriculum, but the problems confronting teachers in many schools are complex and intractable. They involve parents who work too many hours or who have too little education, or who are simply too intimidated or uninterested to read to their children or to help with schoolwork. They take the form of children who spend the key preschool years in poor-quality day care because their parents can't find or afford a better situation. They encompass neighborhoods too dangerous for children to exercise outdoors, too many video games, poor nutrition and new children coming in all the time, at all grades, who don't speak English.

The real question is whether the politicians who talk the most about accountability and raising test scores are willing to take on reforms that are costlier and harder to implement. Like subsidized, high-quality child care, which has been losing the budget battle in Washington and Sacramento even though 300,000 California children are on waiting lists for federally subsidized care. Or paying teachers enough to retain the bright and motivated, and at the same time fighting unions to get rid of burnouts and incompetents.

Studies show, time after time, that high-quality preschool makes a positive difference for disadvantaged students. Other states have started offering it widely; not California. And too many principals are glad to have uninvolved parents. Who needs disruptive critics, they figure, even if parents who care translate directly into better learning?

This year's test scores might be a blip or a benign pause. Schools might just wait and see. The better course is for the state -- not just school districts -- to take them as a warning and fight back.

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