California plans to grade schools on multiple factors beyond test scores

Fifth-grade teacher Pedro Perez, right, helps Thomas Babcock, 10, during a practice math test on March 26, 2015 at Folsom Hills Elementary School. The state Board of Education will decide Thursday how to evaluate schools based on test scores and several other factors.
Fifth-grade teacher Pedro Perez, right, helps Thomas Babcock, 10, during a practice math test on March 26, 2015 at Folsom Hills Elementary School. The state Board of Education will decide Thursday how to evaluate schools based on test scores and several other factors.

State education leaders will vote Thursday on a new system that uses multiple ways to judge school performance, replacing the single score that families and educators relied upon in previous years.

The State Board of Education proposal would replace the Academic Performance Index, a three-digit score that was suspended in 2013 when the state adopted new standardized tests that adhere to Common Core State Standards. While the score gave communities and education officials an easy way to compare schools, critics said it was too grounded in test scores and ignored other factors that reflect school performance.

California shaped its past scoring system under pressure from federal leaders, who sought a uniform way to identify the lowest-performing schools and target them for intervention.

“The old NCLB was sort of blame and shame and punishment and that sort of thing, and we are moving much more now ... to assistance first,” said California Board of Education President Michael Kirst, referring to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “To assist, you need to know more than the API score.”

Kirst said multiple measurements are needed to offer a clear understanding of what is going wrong in specific schools and how the state can help.

The State Board of Education proposal rates schools not just on standardized test scores, but also on the progress of English learners, high school graduation rates, college and career readiness and, initially, suspension rates. School districts also would rely on surveys and other data to measure campuses for school climate, parent engagement, implementation of state academic standards, services for expelled students and adequate instruction and facilities.

The new system would begin in July 2017, according to a document for Thursday’s board meeting in Sacramento.

The plan has won praise from education advocates who felt the API score gave short shrift to schools facing language barriers and serving high-needs students. Critics said the old scoring system pressured schools to teach to the test rather than improve learning.

But some fear the new system swings too far in the other direction, giving so much information as to be confusing without serving as a reliable comparison tool. One prototype of a school’s report card on the Board of Education’s July agenda showed a matrix of 10 different categories, with a rainbow of colors indicating various levels of performance.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board soon after called the system “baffling” and wrote, “Making sense of it is practically impossible.”

Kirst brushed aside criticism that the new system is too confusing.

“If you get a report card at home for your pupil, you wouldn’t just want one number,” Kirst said. “I don’t think it is too hard for parents to comprehend these things.”

Kirst also said the Board of Education is carrying out the state funding law approved by legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013. That law requires school districts to look at eight priorities that are included in the new school grading system. The board is acting before an Oct. 1 state deadline.

The new accountability system helps to determine if school districts are using state dollars for high-needs students as required, said Nayna Gupta, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. She said the measurements of success offer a more thorough snapshot of each district.

Help for faltering districts and schools will come from county offices of education and the California Collaborative on Education Excellence, a public agency established by the state. They will offer professional training for teachers and administrators, as well as workshops for school staff and parents.

Such help is available for all school districts and charter schools, not just those who are struggling, said Joshua Daniels, a CCEE spokesman. “We want to come with a hug, not a hammer.”

Some advocates for disadvantaged students say it doesn’t go far enough.

“While we are supportive of multiple measures and some of the progress we have made around school climate, I have some concerns,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on improving low-income and minority student achievement. “We think closing gaps of achievement should be at the core and we think the state board should be making it more of a priority.”

Smith also objects to allowing schools to fail for two years before interventions occur. “We believe the state needs to move with more urgency when they see schools and districts failing black, brown and poor children.”

Much about the proposed accountability system is still being tweaked, including how the information will be presented to the public, Kirst said.

The state is moving forward with its plan despite the fact it appears to fly in the face of a federal regulations calling for a single school rating. Kirst said the directive by U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. goes beyond federal statutes in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind.

Kirst and the state schools chief Tom Torlakson wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education last month asking officials to strike the single-score requirement and amend others.

“We will align to federal statutes, but not to the regulations,” Kirst said, adding that the issue is likely to be decided by the next president’s administration.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert