Dan Walters

Misnamed ‘accountability’ system for schools leaves parents in dark

An overflow crowd watches a large screen monitor in the lobby of the state education building on July 14, 2016, as the state Board of Education takes public comment on a proposal to broaden the curriculum of California’s history and social science classes.
An overflow crowd watches a large screen monitor in the lobby of the state education building on July 14, 2016, as the state Board of Education takes public comment on a proposal to broaden the curriculum of California’s history and social science classes. The Associated Press

The state Board of Education is on the verge of approving a mind-bendingly dense system of “accountability” for the state’s K-12 schools.

“Unaccountability” would be a better word.

The “multiple measures” system pending before the board would replace the test-oriented Academic Performance Index, which was in use for a decade and a half but has now been unceremoniously dumped.

Professional educators criticize the API, and a similarly oriented federal rating system, as being too simplistically narrow, too punitive and too prone to manipulation.

Educators contend that using the “multiple measures” and downplaying academic test results would be “a flashlight, not a hammer” and help schools implement a new finance system that’s aimed at closing the “achievement gap” separating poor and English-learner students from more advantaged classmates.

Education reform and civil rights advocates, however, say that the system being developed will make it much more difficult for parents to grasp how well their children are being educated – particularly students who are supposed to be getting much-needed extra help.

Critics found an ally last week in the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, which praised using more than one measure, then said, “But the new system is more than overly warm and fuzzy. Making sense of it is practically impossible.”

Instead of easily understood grades, under the pending plan, schools would receive a range of six colors on a variety of measures, most of which have little or nothing to do with actual learning.

“If you’re a parent trying to figure out whether one school in your district is better than another, well, there’s no clear way to do it,” the Times concluded. “If you’re a voter who wants to determine how much the local schools have improved over time, good luck.”

The editorial suggested that if the professional educators who drew up the plan had road-tested it with ordinary people, they would have realized how incomprehensible it is.

That’s being too generous. From the onset, the goal of dumping the API and writing a replacement was to avoid easy understanding. Reading the jargon-saturated reports to the board from consultants purporting to explain it and listening to hours of equally obtuse verbal explanation explode the heads of even relatively sophisticated and knowledgeable observers.

The whole idea has been to avoid accountability, if one defines it as holding educators to an objective standard of performance with consequences for failure.

Moreover, a fuzzy, nonspecific “accountability” system completely undermines the ability of parents, especially in poor communities, to demand improvement in underperforming schools, including the creation of charter schools to seize control from school boards, superintendents and their union allies.

Effective accountability needn’t be confined to test results, but it does need to focus on the bottom line – improving the learning, and therefore the lives, of 6 million kids – rather than insulating the education bureaucracy from consequences for failure.

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