Dan Walters

California’s new school ratings: Are they better or just confusing?

In this April 2015 photo, students are served breakfast at the Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Los Angeles. About 80 percent of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, by far the state’s largest, are either poor or English-learners, making it a focal point of efforts to close the “achevement gap” between them and their more advantaged classmates.
In this April 2015 photo, students are served breakfast at the Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Los Angeles. About 80 percent of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, by far the state’s largest, are either poor or English-learners, making it a focal point of efforts to close the “achevement gap” between them and their more advantaged classmates. AP

If Gray Davis’ governorship achieved anything of importance before he was recalled by voters, it was a system for rating academic achievement in the state’s public schools.

Driven by standardized testing, the Academic Performance Index (API) provided each school with a score on how well its students were progressing.

It had a substantial impact. Parents used the scores to compare their schools with others and demand improvements – even to the point of using a “parent trigger” to take over some poor-performing schools and convert them into charters.

However, the education establishment – and especially the California Teachers Association – hated the API. It was, the critics said, too simplistic and implied that educators should be held solely responsible for outcomes, without taking into account such factors as poverty or lack of English skills.

Once Jerry Brown had been reinstalled in the governorship, and the state had enacted Common Core academic standards, a new testing program and Brown’s overhaul of school financing, the API’s enemies pounced.

The API was suspended, which also indirectly banished the parent trigger, and the state Board of Education and the Department of Education launched what became a years-long process of writing a substitute accountability system using “multiple measures” rather than just test scores.

The new system, called the California School Dashboard, was released last week for field testing. It uses a system of color-coding school districts and individual schools on a variety of factors, displayed in either pie charts or grids.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with “multiple measures.” But academic performance is, or should be, the most important one. The new system considers it just one of many, making it possible for a school to have a good overall rating even with poor academics, as an initial analysis by the Los Angeles Times found.

Unfortunately, about 60 percent of California’s 6.2 million K-12 students are classified either as impoverished or “English learners,” which implies that their parents will not easily navigate a complicated rating system. And that’s one reason civil rights and school reform groups are not pleased with the system.

The dashboard is also the latest flashpoint in a long-running conflict between education equity groups and the education establishment over accountability – and particularly over how Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula is being implemented.

LCFF provides extra funds to districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students, and the equity groups have pressed for stricter accountability for how the additional money is being spent and whether it is, as advertised, closing the “achievement gap.”

Brown and his top education adviser, Board of Education President Michael Kirst, have strangely resisted state-level accountability for outcomes and the new multiple measures dashboard represents their contention that providing data in colorful form suffices.

Kirst says it “provides local communities with meaningful and relevant information on how well schools and districts are doing (and) will help in local decision-making by highlighting both the progress of schools and student groups, shining a light on disparities and helping stakeholders pinpoint where resources should be directed.”

Not everyone agrees.

“We remain concerned that the dashboard display is currently more confusing than practical – especially without clear goals and targets,” Education Trust-West president Ryan Smith said.

Well said.

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