Two things can be said about California’s state government when it comes to its efforts on school data. The first? That the Golden State has always blundered when it comes to developing robust comprehensive data systems that can be easily used by families, school leaders, researchers, and policymakers. As I reported seven years ago in A Byte At the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, bureaucratic incompetence, failures to fully fund development of data systems, and the byzantine structure of state education governance have all combined to ensure that none of California’s data systems provide the comprehensive longitudinal data that is needed to spur systemic reform. Little wonder why California only implemented four of the 10 standards for high-quality data systems set by the Data Quality Campaign in 2012 — and why it hasn’t participated in the organization’s evaluations for the past two years.
The second: That affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, along with traditional districts within the Golden State, have worked together to make it even harder for families or anyone to gain any data on school and student performance at all, much less anything that is simple-yet-comprehensive. Four years ago, the Big Two successfully convinced Gov. Jerry Brown to kibosh development of the CalTIDES teacher performance data system (and ending efforts to use objective student test score growth data in evaluating how instructors are improving student achievement). Last year, the Big Two and traditional districts successfully convinced Brown and state legislators to pass Assembly Bill 484, which all but gutted the state’s accountability systems — under the guise of implementing Common Core reading and math standards — by eviscerating all but four of the state’s battery of exams.
So it isn’t shocking that Supt. Tom Torlakson removed decades of test data from the state education department’s Web site. What is surprising is that days later, the chief state school officer, amid criticism from reformers and others over the move, restored the data for public consumption. While the reversal is good news for families and others, it is another reminder that reformers must continue to fight hard to ensure access — and improve quality of — school data both in California and the rest of the nation.
Why did Torlakson even remove the test data in the first place? Officially, of course, the superintendent claimed that it was done to comply with a law passed two years ago at his behest to forbid districts and others from comparing data from the Golden State’s old battery of tests with those from the Common Core-aligned exams being provided by the Smarter Balanced coalition. After all, there’s no way that state officials can allow for both the old and new test data to be used longitudinally to compare district, school, student, and even teacher performance over time. There are certainly points to be made about the validity of using test data aligned to old curricula standards with those from test aligned with Common Core. But there is nothing in the law itself that requires Torlakson to pull the test data from the Golden State’s DataQuest site — and the data could have remained on the site as historical information that could be used by researchers and even families for their own comparison purposes.
So why did Torlakson really move to remove the data? Look to the superintendent’s ties to NEA’s and AFT’s Golden State affiliates, and the fears of traditional districts whose failures to provide kids with high-quality education will be on full display once the Smarter Balanced results become public knowledge.
Always remember this: Torlakson has long done the bidding of the NEA’s California Teachers Association and the AFT’s California Federation of Teachers, both of which have long-backed his political career. Last year, the two unions, along with their national parents, spent big to help Torlakson barely win re-election over reformer Marshall Tuck. For that kind of money, NEA and AFT demand repayment in the form of moves that will ensure that they can continue to keep even the worst-performing rank-and-file members on payrolls (and keep the dues flowing into their respective coffers).
Thanks to last year’s Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California (which is now being appealed by Torlakson at NEA’s and AFT’s behest), districts can use test score growth data as required under the state’s Stull Act in evaluating teacher performance. In fact, 13 families, with the help of Students Matter (which helped finance the Vergara suit) filed suit against districts last month to force the use of test data in evaluations as required under law. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which has been pushing to do exactly that (and whose former superintendent, John Deasy, supported Vergara) and is allowed to (in a very weakened form) under its own contract with the AFT’s City of Angeles local, could end up doing so thanks to elections earlier this year that essentially put reformers in control of the district. With such threats on the horizon, Torlakson certainly wanted to make sure that the Big Two’s interests were well-served.
As for districts? Given that children will likely perform at lower levels on the more-difficult Smarter Balanced assessments than on the Golden State’s old assessments, it will expose what has been reality for some time: That far too many children in the state, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds (including English Language Learners), have been subjected to educational abuse and malpractice. This has been the reality for districts in states such as New York and Connecticut that have also replaced old tests with those aligned with Common Core. By removing the data from the site (and eventually bringing it back in harder-to-use data files), Torlakson would have made it difficult for researchers, news outlets, politicians, and families to make any performance comparisons.
For districts with large numbers of failure mills, Torlakson’s move would have been especially beneficial because it would make it more-difficult for families to find information they need to make smarter decisions. This includes deciding to launch Parent Trigger efforts to take over those very failing schools or force the districts into negotiating with them on reforming how those schools provide instruction and curricula. A state superior court judge already ruled last month that the old test data (as used under the No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision) could be used by parents of kids attending Anaheim’s Palm Lane Elementary in their Parent Trigger takeover attempt. So why would Torlakson, who is no fan of the law, want to make it easier for other families to do the same?
The consequences of Torlakson’s move would have been nearly as damaging as Brown’s decision last year to sign AB 484 — and it goes beyond teacher evaluations and Parent Trigger efforts. It would have been harder for educational researchers to determine how districts, schools, and adults are helping children succeed academically. News outlets would have been unable to serve their important role of shining light on how public education systems are doing by children, families, and taxpayers; as evidenced by the Los Angeles Times’ teacher quality series five years ago that published data on teacher performance, the press can help spur meaningful reform by publishing critical data. And reform-minded politicians within the Golden State, as few of them as they are, would have also lost out on information that can help them do right by our children.
Torlakson’s removal of the test data would have remained under covers if not for EdSource, which reported the move last week. This led reformers, education researchers, and their allies, including State Sen. Bob Huff, to call out the superintendent and the state agency for essentially burying important historical data. After two days of intense criticism (and with the likelihood of another lawsuit in play), Torlakson moved to restore the old test data to the state’s Web site. [Torlakson’s spokesman claimed that folks “misperceived” the decision. Sure.]
Certainly one will have to keep an eye on what the superintendent does on the data front from here on. But Torlakson’s reversal is a bright bit of good news in a state in which reformers must often fight through the courts just to get politicians loyal to NEA and AFT affiliates to do their constitutionally-required duty to provide kids with high-quality education.
For California’s reformers, Torlakson’s move is just another reminder of why they must constantly build alliances and shine light on politicians in order to stop traditionalists from further reversing any efforts to help children succeed. But this fact isn’t just true for those in the Golden State.
Traditionalists have figured out a while ago that crippling the reach of data and accountability systems may be the most-critical way to weaken systemic reform efforts. This is one big reason why NEA and AFT affiliates, along with suburban districts and movement conservatives otherwise uninterested in education policy, have mounted campaigns against standardized testing regimes that are the critical tools for measuring, evaluating, and holding accountable states, districts, school leaders and teachers. It is also why traditionalists are also working in Congress to pass a new version of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that would make it even more-difficult for districts and even researchers to use student test score growth data in advancing systemic reform.
But as seen in California, traditionalists can also use other methods to achieve their goals. So reformers must work diligently to oppose them. Constantly reminding families about the importance of student test score growth data in ensuring that all children are served properly by schools and their operators is critical. So is building alliances with other groups — including criminal justice reform advocates (who know all too well the consequences of shoddy data on impeding their efforts) — to continually build up and keep comprehensive data systems in place.
There is plenty to be learned by reformers, both in California and in the rest of the nation, about Torlakson’s shady move. And there is a lot to be done in order to keep other traditionalist-oriented politicians from attempting to do the same.
About the Author: RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.