In summary

California’s test scores raise questions about whether Gov. Jerry Brown’s two signature education initiatives—the revamped education funding formula that provides far more money for each disadvantaged student, and his doctrine of subsidiarity, or local control—can survive when he’s gone.

California is supposed to be getting its students ready for 21st century careers. It’s one of the favorite educational phrases of our time, most recently used by state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson in his department’s press release on state test scores. Yet, at the rate the tests are going, the state won’t get to that point until it’s waving this century good-bye.

Right now, less than 40 percent of the state’s students are passing the math test that would indicate whether they’re on track for those careers. Just under half are passing in English, a number that is up by a single percentage point over the past two years.

High school students actually did worse this year than before. And the achievement gap—the much lower performance among black and Latino students compared with their white and Asian-American peers—hasn’t narrowed appreciably, despite a state funding formula that puts considerably more money toward the education of disadvantaged students. As badly as the state is doing overall in math, only half as many African-American students—one in five—passed the test.

It might not be time to yell, “Disaster!” but neither is the picture encouraging, education advocates say. Bill Lucia, head of the advocacy group EdVoice, said the scores call for raising alarms rather than engaging in self-congratulation.

“If I were superintendent of schools, I’d be saying we’re assembling a task force right away to see why 11th graders are headed in the wrong direction,” he said.

Perhaps more than anything else, the scores raise questions about whether Gov. Jerry Brown’s two signature education initiatives—the brilliantly revamped education funding formula that provides far more money for each disadvantaged student, and his doctrine of subsidiarity, or local control—can survive without significant changes after he leaves office this year, unless scores show a more prominent uptick soon.

It’s not easy to interpret year-to-year test scores in meaningful ways. The scores were predictably poor in 2015, the first year of testing under the Common Core curriculum standards. The first year of a revamped testing program always looks terrible, and this one added the complication of testing by computer rather than paper, with questions that changed depending on whether the previous question had been answered correctly. New format, new kinds of questions, everything is unfamiliar. So the gains in 2016 reflected little more than the fact that everyone knew more about what they were facing.

Scores were essentially flat in 2017. Disappointing, but what matters are patterns, not a single year. The unimpressive performance this year, though, has wrinkled brows among the people who watch school progress. If things don’t pick up next year, there will be serious concern about what’s going wrong.

The state, with California Teachers Association ally Torlakson leaving after eight years, isn’t admitting to any warning signs. Instead, it’s finding good omens in the test scores of third and fourth graders, which have improved at a more promising clip.

“We’re encouraged by what we see, especially since these tests are more rigorous than previous paper and pencil tests,” Torlakson said in a statement last week after the release of the test scores. State Board of Education President Michael W. Kirst echoed that optimism, noting that “younger learners who have experienced standard-aligned instruction since kindergarten are improving faster.”

One day, the theory goes, those young children will be the middle and high school students of tomorrow, bringing that higher achievement with them. That’s possible, said Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive running for state schools chief, but it conveniently ignores the fact that the same pattern was seen early on during the old California Standards Test. Primary-grade students performed better and improved more, but that never translated into the same gains later on in middle and high school.

“We need to take a deep look at why we’re not making better progress,” he said.

Tuck’s opponent, CTA-supported Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, says that despite Torlakson’s lame-duck status, he should be launching an immediate inquiry into the pallid improvement this year.

“We’ve got to answer some questions and answer them quickly. We need to have hard conversations and say, ‘There’s some kind of a problem, some kind of a disconnect.’ ”

Then there’s the question of the abysmal math scores. Lucia theorizes that schools are doing better in English because English instruction under Common Core is similar to how the subject was taught in California before. Math instruction, though, is drastically different. To Lucia and Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, this implies that math teachers might not be getting the kind of training they need, and their districts might not even realize the shortcomings.

“We know very little about how teachers are implementing Common Core,” Fuller said. “There’s a lesson here for the new governor: We’re just going to be mystified until the state launches actual classroom research.”

Thurmond says teachers are pleading for better training on how to teach Common Core, with none of the needed guidance from the state.

Fuller, who aligns with neither charter-school-supporting reformers nor with their usual political opponent, the CTA, has also been fretting for years about school districts that spend their extra Local Control Funding Formula money on across-the-board teacher raises or administrative programs instead of directly in the schools, on lower class sizes, better working conditions and added programs for disadvantaged students. Torlakson approved the use of the money for general teacher raises; Tuck says he’d rescind that opinion to ensure that most of the extra funding is spent directly on students (though he does support raises for teachers in districts with high populations of disadvantaged students).

In past years, the scores would have become fodder for a heated debate about teacher tenure, and “failing” schools. Few in California seem to have much appetite for going back to that old argument. Teachers and schools are working hard, advocates say, but they might be rudderless when it comes to bringing students to the next level.

The state could provide needed direction, but under Torlakson, Brown and the era of local control, it’s been loath to do so. The state already faces a lawsuit over the numbers of students who aren’t learning to read. Plaintiffs point out that, “subsidiarity” or not, the state constitution makes an adequate public education the responsibility of the state.

“We’re talking zero programs for literacy and for illiteracy prevention,” Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel, told me when he filed the lawsuit. “Even though Torlakson called the literacy situation a crisis.”

Vast amounts of study are needed on the new test data, Fuller said—work that should happen on the state level. Which math and teacher-training programs are working? The state could, under a new governor and superintendent, then insist that schools to pick from the more successful ones. Which schools are spending their extra funding in ways that work best for students? Does the drop in 11th-grade scores indicate that instruction is falling apart in high school, or is it a more benign reflection of how hard schools have been working hard to raise graduation rates? The students who are kept from dropping out probably are among the low achievers, which makes a school look “worse” but might indicate that it’s actually doing a good job of reducing dropout rates.

Other factors affecting academic performance, such as lack of early-childhood enrichment and health problems among the poor, fall outside what single districts can address, but could be addressed by targeted state programs.

Test scores could mysteriously pick up next year—or not. The bigger problem is the mystery itself. The state has little understanding about what’s behind progress or the lack of it, and uses Brown’s local control doctrine as a reason to avoid getting involved. That’s an argument that will be challenged by the literacy lawsuit, which has been cleared to go to trial.

In other words, the lawsuit is about more than just reading skills; it is an early test of whether Brown’s “local control” philosophy will be a state legacy or a momentary blip.

Karin Klein is a CALmatters contributor and  former Los Angeles Times editorial board member, editor and staff writer. She teaches at Chapman University and has written extensively on education policy.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: