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Cortines lays down the law

The LAUSD superintendent tells teachers that they will administer benchmark tests -- or else.

July 10, 2009

With the Los Angeles Unified School District in financial peril, schools need strong direction more than ever. Recent letters to the instructional staff from Supt. Ramon C. Cortines provide it, by making clear that the district will not tolerate teachers' failure to administer benchmark tests throughout the school year.

The tests, called periodic assessments, are intended to give teachers and administrators snapshots of how students are progressing, what they're learning and where they're struggling. It's more useful to find out in December, say, that most students in a class didn't grasp the Pythagorean theorem than to discover it belatedly in May. That's why the tests are more than a district policy; they are detailed under an agreement L.A. Unified reached with the state as part of its accountability requirements. Many teachers find the tests useful; others loathe them as one more standardized mandate from on high. Either way, periodic assessments became a victim of contract negotiations in January, when United Teachers Los Angeles called on its members to boycott them.

Cortines, a strong believer in the tests, has nonetheless soft-pedaled the issue for months, which means that the students lost out as usual. As this page has pointed out, teachers at the Green Dot charter Locke High School administer, analyze and use benchmark tests as a routine matter; it is unthinkable that they would ignore a basic requirement of their job. Yet significant numbers of L.A. Unified teachers were allowed to ignore the tests or withhold the results from supervisors.

In letters dated July 1, Cortines struck a new, do-it-or-else tone. The tests are vital, he wrote, and teachers' performance evaluations will reflect whether they carry out this duty. "Failure to comply with this directive will result in discipline," one letter warned. On Thursday, the teachers union suspended its boycott.

District and union leaders will start talks in September about having teachers create new benchmark tests -- an offer that Cortines made months ago, with no response from the union. Teachers have at times found the tests out of step with the curriculum, and it makes sense for them to draw up more useful ones -- which is what Green Dot's teachers do.

These are discouraging days for teachers, who understandably worry more about layoffs and bigger class sizes than giving standardized tests. But that's no excuse for giving up on excellence or accountability. Cortines was slow to stand up to the union, but we are glad he did.

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