State’s second graders get a STAR

A third attempt to end second-grade testing in California has fallen short. The Assembly Appropriations Committee placed Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill under submission, blocking it from consideration for the remainder of this session.

For a while, SB 740 seemed to be on a winning path, clearing each legislative hurdle with few tribulations and many powerful supporters. So advocates for SB 740, all of them thoroughly familiar with the vagaries of the legislative process, were understandably caught off guard by the appropriations committee’s action.

When we first wrote about it last June, the bill had the backing of the California PTA, both state teachers’ unions, and the California School Boards Association. Since then, Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has signed on, sending a letter to the chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee that urged him to support this “much-needed measure.”

Torlakson’s letter summed up the primary arguments for the bill.

  • Educators, psychologists, and early childhood education experts say high-stakes testing of young children does not provide valid and reliable data,
  • Eliminating second-grade STAR tests in California would save the state more than $2 million a year,
  • California is one of perhaps 10 states that test second graders, and
  • Second-grade testing is not required under No Child Left Behind and will not be included in the new Common Core standards under development.
  • Committee action is baffling

    Hancock’s bill also appeared to have, if not Gov. Brown’s blessing, then at least his belief in the concept. In the May budget revision, the Governor wrote that “testing takes huge amounts of time from classroom instruction,” and said he would reform the state’s testing and accountability system by engaging “teachers, scholars, school administrators and parents to develop proposals to reduce the amount of time devoted to state testing in schools.”

    “We are baffled as to why this would not get out of the Appropriations Committee,” said Sandra Jackson, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “There was a lot of support for the bill.  There was cost savings. There is plenty of formative and summative testing already.”

    Savings may be outweighed

    There was also mounting opposition and doubts – doubts about the efficacy of waiting too long to test students on state standards, unintended financial consequences, and timing.

    “Under the guise of saving a small amount of money, SB 740 eliminates an early assessment that helps schools identify kids who need extra help and use best practices to give them the additional assistance they need to reach grade level expectations,” wrote EdVoice, a nonprofit organization working for school reform in California, in a call to action on its website.

    EdVoice has been an unwavering and vocal opponent of Hancock’s legislation.

    However, it’s a misnomer to paint all supporters as opposed to testing and accountability. They say they want appropriate and useful testing, and contend that the California Standards Test, which is part of the Standardized Testing and Reporting system or STAR, is neither.

    “The California State PTA believes early assessment is critical to improving public education for all children, helping them to reach grade level proficiency, and to provide services needed for success,” wrote Patty Scripter, the California State PTA’s Legislative Advocate, in a letter of support last June.  However, she said that if the goal is to understand students’ strengths and weaknesses in order to give them individual attention, then standardized tests are ineffective.

    Scripter said that while the committee’s action was disappointing, it’s also understandable in light of the coming switch to Common Core standards that will revamp the state’s entire testing system.  “Some people thought this wasn’t the time to be making changes,” she said.

    Analysts for the State Department of Finance and the Assembly Appropriations Committee also suggested that that the money saved by eliminating the test could have backfired on school districts and the California Department of Education.

    Even though Finance didn’t take a position on SB 740, in its analysis of the bill Department officials pointed out that any money saved by doing away with the second grade test would revert to the Proposition 98 General Fund and that’s off limits to the CDE to use for state operations.

    Meanwhile, school districts that decided to give their second grade students other diagnostic tests in place of the STAR exam wouldn’t have been reimbursed by the state and would have had to pay out of pocket at a time when their budgets are already bare bones.

    Author: Kathryn Baron

    Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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