In his State of the State message last month, Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized that the state should have a subsidiary function in education, "performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level."

Brown believes that local districts and individual classrooms are primarily responsible for student achievement. In December, he said he opposed efforts by Washington, D.C., to dictate education policy and suggested that he did not support national education standards, calling them "a form of national control." Brown is attempting to avoid a federal testing mandate while at the same time he's aware that the state is spending $1 billion to adopt Common Core standards.

It's a little tough to square all this. The governor is opposed to national standards, but California has adopted them.

Since 2010, 44 other states and California have adopted the same standards for English and math. These standards are called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Having the same standards helps all students get a good education, even if they change schools or move to a different state.

Teachers, parents and education experts designed the CCSS to prepare students for success in college and the workplace.

National standards are a very different animal than national control, but by ringing a national control bell, the governor has certainly alarmed education stakeholders in California.


Advertisement

Despite Brown's opposition, we need national standards in California and uniform national measures (tests) to assess student performance.

Unfortunately, many Californians equate uniformity with mediocrity. The fallacy is believing that allowing states or individual districts to set their own educational standards and agendas is better than having standards and tests in common with other states.

Having adopted uniform standards and tests still allows school districts to determine how best to meet those standards; and having those standards ensures that we can competently judge how well our students are doing in comparison with students in other states.

Conflating national standards with the means to achieve those standards as Brown has done is a disservice to Californians.

We have plenty of evidence that California is failing its public school students.

On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress Reports (also known as the nation's report card), fourth- and eighth- graders were tested in math and reading. The state's students landed near the bottom.

California's fourth-graders ranked 47th in the nation in both math and reading. Eighth-graders ranked 45th in math and 42nd in reading. In all four categories, California students performed at statistically significant levels below the national average.

But Brown apparently believes we can ignore test data because using "data on a national or state level ... misses the point -- that learning is very individual, very personal."

To Brown, tests are the wrong way to assess what our kids are learning.

Consider, however, that tests are everywhere in America. They are the primary yardsticks in our K-12 assessments. Among other things, we use standardized tests for college admissions, graduate school admissions, teacher licensing programs, licensing drivers, and admission to professional practices such as state bars.

Standardized tests provide fast results, allowing teachers to provide immediate feedback and corrections. They are accurate, easy to administer and understand, are objective, can be norm or criterion referenced, and most important, can test a variety of complexities of student knowledge.

Brown and other critics claim that the tests stifle creativity by forcing students to think in terms of right answers instead of possibilities, unfairly brand students, and measure only narrow ranges of ability.

But, a well-constructed test will not only measure a student's retention of facts, but test that student's ability to apply what she has learned to novel problems and to make connections and inferences.

A test that incorporates a taxonomy of higher levels of thinking will force students to analyze, evaluate and synthesize information.

Building the tests around a core of national standards ensures that our students are being challenged and compared on like measures and enables us to see across the board what is working and what is not. As an assessment measure, standardized tests may not paint a student's complete academic portrait but they certainly provide us with a reasonable snapshot. It is a picture Californians need to see, even if it is not a pretty one.

Patrick Mattimore taught high school psychology for 13 years in the Bay Area and now lives in Thailand.