Ask a baseball fan how good his team's shortstop is, and he can point to more than two dozen statistics, from the number of double plays turned to how often the player strikes out with runners on base.
Ask about the performance of a public school in California, and you'll get one lonely number based solely on one set of end-of-the-year test results.
It was never meant to work this way. The state's school accountability system, adopted a dozen years ago, was supposed to adapt over time as needs changed and new tools developed. Call it one more piece of unfinished business in a state with a lot of work to do.
For students and schools, there are real consequences for allowing this system to limp forward unimproved.
First is what you might call testing tunnel vision. We ask too much of our current exams even while acknowledging they don't utilize the latest technology, cover all the subject matter students should master, or measure both academic knowledge and the real-world problem-solving skills students need.
No one would judge Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum's performance based on one inning. Why should parents and the public judge a school based on one set of tests?
But the even bigger problem is the important things we're ignoring while we focus exclusively on test results in limited subjects. Are students staying in school or dropping out? Are they ready to continue their education? Do they have the training and skills to start a career?
A test score alone won't answer those questions. In a difficult and rapidly changing economy, students and parents need those answers more than ever.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the majority of new jobs that will be created in the next decade will require at least two years of college. That will be especially true in California, where a great deal of future growth is likely to be concentrated in science and technology.
That means it will be just as important that students learn to think critically and solve complex problems as it is for them to fill in the right bubble on a multiple-choice test.
That makes it essential that California students leave schools not just with knowledge but also the know-how they need to succeed in college and the workplace – such as critical thinking skills, effective oral and communication skills, curiosity and imagination. They also need engaging courses connecting what they are learning in school to career paths that interest them. That's the relevance that keeps students on track to graduation, further education and productive lives.
So, how well are our schools doing in these critical areas?
No one knows. And we won't know with certainty until we bring our accountability system up to date.
Anecdotally, we know many students leave school unprepared to meet the demands of today's workplace. That's certainly true for the nearly 100,000 California middle and high school students who drop out each year. But even many graduates find themselves unprepared. More than half of first-year community college students and California State University students need remedial classes before they start college-level work.
We believe it's time to apply the lessons we've learned over the years to give students, teachers and parents a clearer, more complete picture of school performance. We've written Senate Bill 547 to take the first important steps in that direction.
Our proposal would connect the way we evaluate schools with a broader set of indicators that capture the skills and knowledge that make students successful for a lifetime. It requires the State Board of Education to implement a new accountability system—the Education Quality Index—that includes graduation and promotion rates, college preparedness and career readiness along with test scores in measuring school performance.
We do have something to show for 12 years of focusing solely on standardized tests in California—at least eight consecutive years of steadily improving test scores. That's quite an achievement in light of the deep cuts that have been made to school budgets in the last few years, and a testament to the dedication of teachers, parents, school employees and administrators.
Imagine what our students will achieve once we graduate from a system that amounts to academic batting practice and lets them swing for the fences in real life.