California Gov. Jerry Brown wrote a tough indictment of data-based school reform in a message he wrote vetoing a bill that would have changed the state’s accountability system for public schools.

The legislation, SB547, would have reduced reliance on standardized test scores to evaluate students and schools, but Brown called the legislation “yet another siren song of school reform” and would do nothing to improve the quality of schools.

“SB547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning,” said the veto message by Brown, who has gone further than any other governor in blasting modern test-based school reform. “It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity.”

The current California accountability system is based mostly on standardized math and English language arts test scores. The general consensus in the state is that singular focus on test scores had forced schools to narrow their curriculum and that broader measures of quality were needed.

The legislation, similar to laws already passed in other states, would have let standardized test scores account for no more than 40 percent of an evaluation in high school and no less than 40 percent in K-8. Other measures of quality would have been added, including dropout rates and graduation rates.

While the legislation would have made standardized test scores less important than they had been under California’s current Academic Performance Index, the replacement system, called the Education Quality Index, still relied too heavily on data that Brown said in his veto message was not acceptable.

Brown’s veto leaves in place the more restrictive test-based accountability system, but the governor apparently believes that that is better that pretending a new system based on data is much of an improvement and that now is the time to look at real alternatives.

Here’s his letter:

To the members of the California State Senate:

I am returning Senate Bill 547 without my signature.

This bill is yet another siren song for school reform. It renames the Academic Performance Index (API) and reduces its significance by adding three other quantitative measures.

While I applaud the author’s desire to improve the API, I don’t believe that this bill would make the state’s accountability regime either more probing or more fair.

This bill requires a new collection of indices called the “Education Quality Index” (EQI), consisting of “multiple indicators,”many of which are ill-defined and some impossible to design. These “multiple indicators” are to change over time, causing measurement instability and muddling the picture of how schools perform.

SB547 would also add significant costs and confusion to the implementation of the newly-adopted Common Core standards which must be in place by 2014. This bill would require us to introduce a whole new system of accountability at the same time we are required to carry out extensive revisions to school curriculum, teaching materials and tests. That doesn’t make sense.

Finally, while SB547 attempts to improve the API, it relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system. The criticism of the API is that it has led schools to focus too narrowly on tested subjects and ignore other subjects and matters that are vital to a well-rounded education. SB547 certainly would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.

Over the last 50 years, academic “experts” have subjected California to unceasing pedagogical change and experimentation. The current fashion is to collect endless quantitative data to populate ever-changing indicators of performance to distinguish the educational “good” from the education “bad.” Instead of recognizing that perhaps we have reached testing nirvana, editorialists and academics alike call for ever more measurement “visions and revisions.”

A sign hung in Albert Einstein’s office read “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

SB547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity.

There are other ways to improve our schools — to indeed focus on quality. What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number, but it could improve the quality of our schools.

I look forward to working with the author to craft more inspiring ways to encourage our students to do their best.


Edmund G. Brown Jr.

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