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O'Connell, SPI Hopefuls Differ on What 2009 STAR Test Results Mean For California Schools

By Jeff Hudson - August 21, 2009

Since roughly half of California’s students earned “proficient” scores (or higher) in several categories of the 2009 STAR test results, an oft-raised philosophical question comes to mind: Is the glass half full, or half empty?

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, and the three candidates who want to take over that job when O’Connell is termed out next year, took differing views of the STAR figures released by the California Department of Education on Tuesday.

O’Connell – who is in the second half of his second term as Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) – touted the progress that’s been made during his years in office.  “I am pleased and encouraged to see that for the seventh year in a row, California public school students continue to improve,” O'Connell said. “Half of our students are now proficient in English-language arts. This is particularly impressive if you consider that seven years ago, only 35 percent of students met this bar. The improvement trend in mathematics is also impressive, with 46 percent of students now at the proficient or above level.”

O’Connell also pointed to the educational standards that were adopted on his watch.  “California is known nationally for the rigor of our academic standards, and this level of student achievement on our California Standards Tests should be celebrated. It is the result of hard work by teachers, administrators, school support staff, students, and parents,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell also mentioned the continuing achievement gap between different ethnic and socioeconomic groups of students, and acknowledged that there’s plenty of work yet to be done.  "We must continue to focus on students who struggle in the classroom and help them become skillful readers, able mathematicians, and self-confident, well-prepared leaders of tomorrow.  We must also pay particular attention to the fact that a disproportionate share of students who fall below the proficient level are African American or Latino.  This achievement gap represents a loss of opportunity for students of color and remains a real threat to their and California's future success."

The three major candidates for State Superintendent in the 2010 election took a somewhat different view of the STAR test results.  And to no one’s surprise, all three hopefuls devoted a smaller portion of their comments to the past seven years, and focused on the years ahead.

Candidate Larry Aceves, a former school district superintendent, sounded like he sees a glass that’s half empty, and took the state’s elected officials to task.  “For the half of California students who still lack proficiency in Math and English, and their families, today's report offers little to celebrate,” Aceves said.  “It is clear California needs to be investing more in our schools and our children if they are to succeed in college and the job market, yet the deep budget cuts made last month by the Governor and the Legislature means California students will have fewer opportunities in the future.  The disparities in students' scores and proficiencies highlighted in today's report should come as no surprise to elected leaders.  They bemoan the achievement gap that disadvantages students of color and separates wealthier districts from poorer ones, but then they vote for cuts that will exacerbate these divides.”

Referring to the recent cuts in spending for education in the new state budget, Aceves said “It is a travesty that our leaders gave up on finding new revenue to support our children, instead forcing deep cuts that mean California students will endure even more crowded classrooms, suffer from a lack of transportation to and from school, lose access to support services before and after school, and lack the enrichment of art and music programs.”

Aceves also brought up a topic that figures regularly in his campaign appearances. "I'm not a politician, but an educator with more than 30 years' experience in California's public schools,” Aceves said.  “As a teacher, principal and superintendent, I've seen firsthand what our kids have had to put up with.  For too long our kids have been paying the price for Sacramento's irresponsibility in funding education.”

“California's schools are currently facing the largest funding cuts in our state's history,” Aceves concluded. “At the same time, the expectations for our students and the demands on educators have never been greater.”

Assemblymember Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), who often stresses his background as a science teacher and coach, issued a somewhat shorter statement, stressing the challenges that California faces.  “While we have improved our over-all testing results, the achievement gap has not budged.  Our education system is working better for some of our population than others, and that is never acceptable.”

“I worry what next year will bring when our students will face larger class sizes, a shorter school year, and have less supportive instructional materials,” Torlakson added.  “And I am very concerned that those already hurt by the achievement gap will face a greater challenge when they don’t have the option to take summer school classes.”

Assemblymember Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles) also seemed to see a somewhat empty glass. “Today's STAR results reveal a pernicious achievement gap that California has been faulty in closing, particularly with our African American and Hispanic students.  More than half of our students are still failing (not proficient) in basic English and math.  Incremental progress will never enable California to make our own moonshot, and it’s unconscionable to leave any child behind. ”

“Addressing California’s persistent achievement gap is more urgent than ever because the state’s application for Race to the Top funds must address how we are increasing all student achievement,” Romero continued.  “California will be judged on whether it has set ambitious targets for closing an achievement gap that has persisted for decades. The education of our next generation must never be a situation where any degree of failure is accepted.”

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.