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State superintendent talks Common Core, exit exam elimination at San Ramon forum

Tom Torlakson discusses education policy with city, school district leaders

State superintendent of public instruction Tom Torlakson shared his vision for what California's education system will strive for in 2016 and reflected on goals achieved and lessons learned during 2015 while speaking at a forum in San Ramon on Monday night.

The elected leader of California's education system spoke to a crowd of about 50 people -- mostly made up of education and municipal leaders from San Ramon, Pleasanton and other nearby areas -- at Dougherty Valley High School's performing arts building.

In his talk and subsequent Q-and-A session, Torlakson addressed his hopes for Common Core strategies, the elimination of the state high school exit exam, an upcoming state measure to fund school construction projects and the recent lockdown of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"There's a community here that strongly supports education," he said in an interview after the forum. "They believe in excellence, and they strive for it in every way, so it makes sense that San Ramon's scores and efficiency rates are so high, double the state average in this first round of (Common Core) assessments. But I saw eager participation and a real commitment to understanding that education is the key to our future."

Torlakson discussed the Tri-Valley's place in the greater education system, praising the area's strong tech sectors and emphasizing the need for math and science education, as well as the need for more career and technical education.

But he also stressed that arts and music education are also just as important as technology education and shouldn't be forgotten.

Torlakson has deep roots in the East Bay. He was a classroom teacher in Contra Costa's Mt. Diablo Unified School District and served on the Antioch City Council and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors before stepping into the California state legislature as an assemblyman and a state senator. He was elected as state superintendent in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.

"At the heart of it all is the common purpose we have, to make sure we have thriving schools," he said.

Torlakson said he's optimistic about the future Common Core has in California, particularly due to its emphasis on evidence-based reasoning. He said only 1% of California parents opted their children out of Common Core education, as opposed to up to 50% in other states -- a sign that California is acclimating well to the new testing system.

"In other states, it's become a political football," he said, saying the rollout of Common Core in California was calmer. "I call it the California way."

He addressed the elimination of the California High School Exit Examination, saying it didn't align with Common Core standards and set the bar far too low to be effective. He said he's established a committee to look at alternatives, and students will adhere to district graduation standards in the meantime.

He said he supports the elimination of a district reserve cap -- a contentious issue in Pleasanton and the San Ramon Valley -- that limits districts from being able to stock away money for rainy days. Under current law, districts can save about 6% of their operating budgets in reserves.

Local control is essential to keep the state's education system running smoothly, he said, and that includes allowing financial control over reserves.

The forum was hosted by the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association Tri-Valley chapter and the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

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