Local Schools to Reduce Reliance on Testing

Picture reposted from The Chicago Reader

Picture reposted from The Chicago Reader

By Barbara Grady, Oakland Local

The Oakland Unified School District, as well as school districts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and five other large cities, received federal approval on Tuesday to begin a new way of evaluating children’s educational success beyond just scores on standardized tests.

In winning federal approval for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the law that ties federal funding to yearly improvements in standardized tests, the eight districts proposed instead to evaluate themselves on a range of criteria including graduation rates, school attendance gains, and even students’ social and emotional well-being, in addition to standardized test scores.

The OUSD and partners built their proposal around the Common Core curriculum — a new kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum that is being implemented in California and many states around the country, which that focuses on critical thinking and problem solving, and places less emphasis on rote learning of facts.

The districts call their joint effort the California Office to Reform Education (CORE). U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who inherited the No Child Left Behind law from the Bush administration but has never expressed much praise for it, called the plan by the eight districts innovative and “designed to promote deep student learning,” in prepared remarks when announcing the waiver’s approval.

“The Districts’ approved plan includes key accountability components that, when implemented, will surpass the rigor of the current NCLB system and provide an opportunity to expand innovative interventions and practices that can improve student achievement, rather than spending time and resources implementing NCLB’s one-size-fits-all mandates,” he said.

Among other things, the eight districts plan to make themselves accountable for fixing inequities among racial and demographic groups in things like discipline and academic achievement.

Oakland officials said the waiver lets them shift focus towards fully implementing their “Thriving Students” strategic plan, and not lose out on federal money if across-the-board test scores don’t reach specific milestones. The District typically receives about $6 million in Title I federal money each year. That money, according to NCLB, is tied to test scores. Specifically, the NCLB law requires that all students reach “proficiency” in math and English scores by 2014.

Dr. Gary Yee, Oakland’s acting Superintendent said, “The waiver elements are consistent with our “Community Schools, Thriving Students” five-year plan, and we believe that it is far more progressive than the rigid, ‘one-size-fits-all’ direction of NCLB.”

As of data released last winter, about 45 percent of OUSD students are proficient in math and English. Very few districts across the country, however, are near to hitting that 100 percent mark, and a common complaint against the law is that the test scores fail to capture all that is involved in academic achievement, or all that goes on in education.

The No Child Left Behind law has been in place since the presidency of George W. Bush, but has been unpopular among educators and officials in many states. Thirty-nine states have applied for, and received, waivers from the law by coming up with alternative plans.

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