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By Tim Hunt

Rewriting the tests

Uploaded: Jan 10, 2013

State schools chief Tom Torlakson is calling for a complete revision of the state's standardized testing system.
On its face, moving from multiple choice questions, to essays that will require a better understanding of the material, makes sense, particularly for older students. A demonstrated ability to reason and write is far more important that regurgitating memorized facts. It will be interesting to see what evolves because grading essays is far, far more time consuming than a multiple choice exam that can be processed easily by a computer.
What makes me nervous is that Torlakson, a former teacher himself, is in the state job because the state teachers' union supported his campaign very generously. That's certainly their right—the union was also a top donor to the governor's successful campaign to raise taxes—but this one is really close to their members.
Evaluating teachers and weeding out the poor ones is critical to the education process. Schools such as Marilyn Avenue in Livermore with a committed teaching staff have shown dramatic improvement in student achievement while dealing is with students with both language and economic challenges.
That Livermore school is doing significantly better with poor Hispanic students than a couple of Pleasanton schools are faring with small, similar populations of students.
As the test revision moves ahead, the CTA leaders will be heavily involved with both Torlakson's office and the Democrat-dominated Legislature. Here's hoping the students also will be considered.
What the standardized tests and the federal requirement to track language and ethnic sub-groups has achieved is bringing a much sharper focus for school administrators and trustees. No longer can a small sub-group be ignored in a school where the majority of the students perform well.
The tests also have provided a report card that parents can easily understand—both for their child and their school.
Setting goals and measuring achievement against those goals is critical if the meter is going to move, whether it is in business or education.
Incidentally, this week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released the results of a three-year study that asked whether effective teachers can move student achievement levels. It is the first large-scale survey that demonstrated good teachers will improve student test scores regardless of the class population.
Naturally, critics argued that test scores are not a measure of whether a teacher is effective and one education professor called in a political document in a report in the Wall Street Journal. Knowing a bit about the Gates Foundation's commitment to improving education—particularly for students in poor neighborhoods attending bad schools—I suspect the political comment was just that.