Gray Davis may have been the most risk-averse governor in living memory and paid the price for his reticence when he was recalled for failing to deal forthrightly with severe budget and energy crises. But Davis did show some political courage on one matter, championing tougher academic standards for California's public schools, with testing to show how school systems and individual schools were faring.

What Davis wrought led to laws that allowed parents to seek control of failing schools and efforts to assess teachers' competence. None of what Davis did or what followed sat well with California's politically powerful education unions, especially the California Teachers Association. They didn't like testing, they didn't like grading schools, they didn't like the parental takeover laws, and most of all, they didn't like the notion of using test scores for judging teachers.

As mentioned in this space recently, the shift of the state's schools into a Common Core set of standards gives the CTA, et al., an opportunity to undo what they don't like. A bill backed by the unions, their perpetual ally, state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, and Gov. Jerry Brown would suspend almost all academic testing immediately and then, the sponsors say, reinstate it in alignment with Common Core in a couple of years. Thus, were the legislation to be enacted, everything that stems from testing and that the unions dislike would also be suspended and, it's widely believed, quietly killed.

Assembly Bill 484 cleared the Senate on Tuesday and still needs a final vote in the Assembly, but the measure has drawn a powerful adversary, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

He dispatched a letter warning that testing is a requirement for receiving federal school aid, and suggested that the aid to California, tens of billions of dollars, could be in jeopardy.

"No one wants to over-test, but if you are going to support all students' achievement, you need to know how all students are doing," Duncan wrote. "If California moves forward with a plan that fails to assess all its students, as required by federal law, the department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds from the state."

Brown and others backing the legislation appear unconcerned about the threat. Torlakson called testing on old standards a "look in the rear-view mirror" and said, in effect, that state officials will worry about Duncan's threat if they seek a waiver.

Duncan's intercession cheered critics of AB 484, such as EdVoice, an advocate for testing, parental control and other provisions of current state law that the unions oppose.

"Without valid and reliable statewide assessment data," it said, "there will be no accountability, at the local or state level — no information on whether public schools are closing achievement gaps of disadvantaged students."

<i>Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.</i>