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A look back at some significant state and local education stories in 2014

Here’s a sampling of some significant education stories that appeared in this newspaper in 2014.

1. New school funding, curriculum and testing

– The California Board of Education adopted regulations to help districts implement the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which changed the ways schools were funded and required districts to create plans showing how they would spend money, especially for English language learners, low-income students and foster youth.

– Districts implemented new Common Core standards for education, focusing less on memorization and more on critical thinking.

– Students piloted new computer-based tests aimed at gauging how well they were learning with the new standards.

2. School child abuse cases

– The Brentwood school district agreed to pay $8 million to settle a lawsuit with the families of eight special needs children over its handling of a special-education teacher who was convicted of child abuse, yet allowed to remain in the classroom.

– An Antioch district teacher charged with abusing special-education students pleaded guilty to one felony count of child abuse and two misdemeanor charges.

n The Moraga school district agreed to pay $14 million to two women who sued over sex abuse by a former teacher, in what was believed to be the nation’s largest molestation settlement per student.

n Former Woodside Elementary teacher Joseph Martin was charged with 150 counts of child molestation involving 14 students. The District Attorney later dismissed 34 charges, a jury acquitted Martin of 21 more and failed to reach consensus on 95 charges. The District Attorney is retrying the former Mt. Diablo school district teacher on 24 felony molestation counts involving nine students.

3. Charter schools

n The Contra Costa County Board of Education approved an agreement paving the way for the Summit K2 Charter School to open in El Cerrito in the fall, after the West Contra Costa school board rejected the charter petition.

n The Antioch school district reached an agreement with Dozier-Libbey High teachers to keep the site under its authority, after a months-long campaign to convert the school into an independent charter. The Antioch school board and Contra Costa County Board of Education denied the charter petition and teachers dropped their appeal to the state Board of Education.

n Although the Contra Costa County Board of Education renewed the charter for Clayton Valley Charter High for five years, tensions built throughout the year between some staff members and the school’s governing board. An original petitioner for the school was fired, the board president resigned and a teacher board member was asked to resign, but refused. Teachers voted no confidence in Executive Director Dave Linzey and the board dismissed the school’s coordinator of technology after he was accused of breaching Linzey’s confidence.

n The West Contra Costa school board approved three charter petitions in December, after initially proposing to seeking a waiver from its responsibility to vote on charters, saying the independent schools negatively impact the district.

n The Knightsen school board rejected a charter proposed by ChartHouse Public Schools, which also seeks to operate a countywide Performing Arts charter.

4. West Contra Costa bond program

n Voters rejected a $270 million bond measure in June.

n The Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenaed the district, board president, county, and district financial advisers and consultants in an inquiry into the district’s bond financing. The school board approved hundreds of thousands in contracts for legal representation related to the SEC inquiry, along with representation related to separate questions from the FBI.

What do you think were the most significant education stories in 2014?

Posted on Friday, January 2nd, 2015
Under: Antioch school district, Brentwood school district, California Department of Education, Clayton Valley Charter High, Contra Costa County, Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Knightsen school district, Moraga school district, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 7 Comments »

Adult Education programs are gearing up for new GED tests in 2014

An upcoming overhaul of the General Education Development test, or GED, is causing lots of debate locally and around the country due to major changes to the test, the way it is administered and who is overseeing it.

Starting Jan. 1, adults must take the high school equivalency tests on computers, instead of pencil and paper. The current five sections of the GED test, which include one language arts reading section and one language arts writing section, will be reduced to four (reasoning through language arts, mathematical reasoning, science and social studies).

The questions will be more complex, with short answers and essays intended to show greater understanding and critical analysis by test-takers in order to pass. Anyone who has not passed all five sections of the current test by the end of the year must start over in January.

Also, the GED Testing Service that oversees the tests is under new ownership, after a merger between the nonprofit American Council on Education that has always overseen it, with the for-profit Pearson learning company. The more stringent testing requirements, coupled with the new management structure, have placed additional burdens on adult education programs in California that are stressed from state budget negotiations.

In response to these concerns, the state Board of Education is considering changing its GED regulations to allow the California Department of Education to pursue an alternative high school equivalency test that could be taken using pencil and paper or computers. The board is accepting written comments through July 30 on an amendment that would change “a general educational development test” to “a test to obtain a high school equivalency certificate.” This change would clarify that the department would not be referencing the GED test.

Comments may be sent to the regulations coordinator via email:, or by FAX to 916-319-0155. More information, including the mailing address, is available by calling 916-319-0800 or by visiting Click on Item 6 under the full board agenda public session for July 10, 2013.

The state board held a public hearing about the proposed changes in May and received 10 comments ranging from support to criticism.

Randy Trask, president of the GED Testing Service, objected to assertions made in a Feb. 20 memo from the state Department of Education to the board that said computer-based testing would decrease access, especially in rural and correctional settings, and that continued paper-based testing across the state was essential. Trask said the memo conspicuously omitted the benefits of the computer-based system or costs to test-takers.

In a phone interview, GED spokesman Armando Diaz said the computer change has many benefits.

“We’re not just providing a test,” he said. “We’re providing an entire system.”

It will include a pre-GED test as well as post-test information, including scores and suggestions for next steps, he said. Now, if someone doesn’t pass, they have no idea what they need to do to pass next time.

The new test will provide an in-depth score report, showing strengths and weaknesses, he said. Based on the passing score, the system may suggest additional coursework, he added.

“We want to bridge the gap between test-takers and middle skills jobs,” he said. “A lot of technology has been introduced to the manufacturing field, but a lot of adults are not familiar with technology, such as dragging a computer mouse around. I don’t think Target and Walmart even offer paper applications anymore.”

If the GED test did not move to computers, he said, test-takers could be at a disadvantage when they look for jobs.

More information about the new test is at

Do you think the state should pursue an alternative to the GED?

Posted on Monday, July 29th, 2013
Under: California Board of Education, California Department of Education, Education | No Comments »

Why the state plans to revamp its student testing

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recommended a huge overhaul in school testing on Tuesday, but it is up to the governor and legislators to adopt, modify or implement his proposal. Here is the rationale for the sweeping changes, as laid out in Torlakson’s letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature:

“While what we test, how we test, who we test, when we test, and why we test all continue to be subjects of debate, this much is clear: California’s system of student assessment has proved to be a powerful tool for improving school accountability and achievement.

When the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program began more than a decade ago, only one student in three scored proficient or higher. Today, roughly 900,000 more students are reaching the goals we have set for them now than when the STAR Program began.

As significant as this progress is, the time has come to remake our state’s assessment system. As we do, we must set our sights on a new, more ambitious goal — creating a system that fosters high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom.

The first step in this process is to align our assessments to the new Common Core State Standards, which provide a practical way to prepare our students for the challenges of a constantly changing world, equipping them with the real-world skills they need for college and career.

Just as the skills we want our students to master have changed, so too must our tests. The ability to engage in critical thinking and solve complex problems cannot be reliably assessed with the kinds of multiple-choice tests that are the centerpiece of our current system.

The Common Core State Standards ask students to acquire deeper knowledge of the subjects they study and be able to perform more complex tasks using what they have learned. It is critical that we have assessments that measure their progress toward these goals.

But perhaps even more important, I believe this work provides us with the opportunity to develop new assessments that serve as models for the kind of high-quality teaching and learning necessary for a world-class education.

The concept is simple but powerful: if our assessments require students to use problem solving and critical thinking skills to perform well, those same skills are much more likely to be taught in our classrooms day in and day out. The goals we set for our assessment system have profound implications for our students and our schools.

Tests that are scientifically valid and reliable for one purpose cannot necessarily be easily and reliably adapted to another. Creating a system focused principally on fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills likely means our students will initially find them more difficult. Although they rely less heavily on memorizing specific information than our current assessments, they will require deeper understanding of how to access and apply knowledge and skills to real-world tasks and problems.

Trade-offs are inevitable in this process. Just as it takes a student longer to write an essay than to choose A, B, C, or D on a multiple-choice answer sheet, designing, administering, and scoring these more complex assessments will take more time, and, inevitably, more money. However, the investment in this form of assessment is an investment in the quality of teaching and learning as well, so the costs are balanced by significant benefits.

There are other concerns as well. After all, testing and learning are not one and the same. We must always be mindful that time spent testing generally comes at the expense of time our students would otherwise have spent gaining the very knowledge and skills that are the goal of education.

It is noteworthy that many of the countries leading the world in achievement place little or no emphasis on standardized testing. Where they do test, they use more open-minded measures, sparingly and strategically, and often sample students rather than testing every child. In the absence of current federal requirements, these recommendations offered in this report would no doubt be substantially different.

Indeed, the clear failure of No Child Left Behind to meet its objectives should long ago have spurred federal policymakers to re-examine their requirements that every student be tested in English-language arts and mathematics nearly every year. In the absence of federal action, these recommendations strike a balance — continuing to provide an individual student score each year in the grades and subjects required by federal mandates while providing more thoughtful and flexible alternatives for students in other grades and subjects.

There are many factors to consider, especially in California, which serves such a vast and diverse set of students. It is vital that we address the needs of all students, including English learners and students with special needs, from the outset of this effort.

For this reason, the California Department of Education undertook an extensive process of engagement with education stakeholders and the public in developing these recommendations. I trust you will find their input, which is summarized in the accompanying report, as useful as I did. My staff and I look forward to working with you in considering these recommendations during the upcoming session.”

Here is the link to Torlakson’s report, called “Recommendations for Transitioning California to a Future Assessment System”:

Do you support the new tests?

Posted on Saturday, January 12th, 2013
Under: California Department of Education | 3 Comments »