Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California’s academic ratings targeted for repeal

Grant High math teacher Kadhir Rajagopal helps Rashaad Jackson with practice problems as Sam Kinsey, left, looks on in their ninth-and tenth-grade Algebra II class in 2010.
Grant High math teacher Kadhir Rajagopal helps Rashaad Jackson with practice problems as Sam Kinsey, left, looks on in their ninth-and tenth-grade Algebra II class in 2010. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Gray Davis was recent history’s most risk-averse governor, and it cost him dearly.

His failure to squarely confront simultaneous energy and budget crises led to his recall by voters in 2003, just a year after he had squeaked out a paper-thin re-election.

There was, however, one notable exception to Davis’ political timidity. In 1999, the first year of his governorship, Davis confronted the state’s education establishment, including the powerful California Teachers Association, over accountability for academic achievement, or the lack thereof, in K-12 schools.

At his behest, the Legislature authorized the creation of an “Academic Performance Index,” ushering in what Davis called “an era of higher expectations” – a subtle dig at his former boss, Jerry Brown, who often advised Californians to “lower your expectations.”

The API had problems from the onset. It was supposed to include not only school-by-school academic test results, but attendance and dropout data.

However, reliable numbers on the latter were unavailable, so it was confined to tests. Moreover, the tests initially used were national ones not aligned with California’s standards.

Nevertheless, API ratings began flowing out of Sacramento, often proving embarrassing to local school officials, who decried them as simplistic and punitive. Unions, meanwhile, were worried that they would be used to judge teachers’ competency.

The conflict escalated in 2010, when the Legislature agreed to connect the API to a “parent trigger.”

Parents of children in a poor-performing school could demand changes, such as having their kids transferred, and even taking control themselves with a charter school.

The latter was rarely invoked, but its potential use irked the education establishment to no end, forcing officials to pay more attention to parents’ complaints.

When the state, during Brown’s second governorship, changed its school financing formula and adopted “Common Core” academic standards, the API’s foes pounced.

Brown and the Legislature suspended the API, supposedly so it could be revised. But the state Board of Education began working on a new “multiple measures” system that minimizes test results as a factor and is on the verge of seeking API repeal.

“The API is behind us,” board member Sue Barr – a former education adviser to Davis – declared this month. She spoke after the board heard pleas from education reformers, civil rights advocates and parents – some speaking through interpreters – to retain an easily understood method of rating schools.

Gloria Romero, the former Democratic state senator who wrote the parent trigger law, says that if the API disappears, the Legislature should be duty-bound to provide a new performance measure for parents.

However, the staff recommendation before the state school board is to eliminate the API and “identify the obsolete and outdated references to the API that need to be removed” as part of its repeal, implying that the parent trigger law should also die.

If the API is repealed without a replacement measure for parent trigger, Romero says a lawsuit would be the next step, which would not be unusual.

School reform and civil rights groups have often sued, usually successfully, in their battles with the establishment over accountability and other flashpoint issues.

  Comments