Editorials

Grading California schools in 3-D

Leticia Fonseca, 16, left, and her sister, Sylvia, work in the computer lab at Cuyama Valley High School after taking the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests, in New Cuyama. A new system for measuring school performance was approved Thursday in the wake of Common Core and other school reforms.
Leticia Fonseca, 16, left, and her sister, Sylvia, work in the computer lab at Cuyama Valley High School after taking the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests, in New Cuyama. A new system for measuring school performance was approved Thursday in the wake of Common Core and other school reforms. AP

California schools are getting a new report card. It’s a work in progress, but some critics are already complaining it’s too complex.

Californians should give it a chance. The new accountability system promises to be of more use to schools and families. If the state can come up with some workable graphics, it will offer a more three-dimensional view of how schools are doing, and that should be educational, once everyone gets used to it.

Approved Thursday by the state Board of Education after three years of study and public comment, the new school assessments replace the old at-a-glance Academic Performance Index. The API was a single number, based on test scores and beloved by real estate agents in affluent neighborhoods.

In schools with large enrollments of low-income students, however, the API was a burden unless teachers taught to the tests that informed it. Elsewhere, averaging test scores often papered over big achievement gaps. So districts gamed it. It was retired two years ago after state lawmakers overhauled school funding and California launched the new Common Core curriculum, which emphasizes critical thinking over scores on multiple-choice tests.

A good education has a lot of components, and we need to get past the notion that quality schools are simple.

The new measure, more of a dashboard, grades on a half-dozen or so metrics, including English and math test scores, proficiency by non-English speakers, underlying school conditions such as suspension rates and teacher qualifications, measures of college and career readiness, and high school graduation rates.

This change follows federal statutes and is being made on orders from the Legislature. Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education, described the new system to The Sacramento Bee editorial board last week as part of a broader shift away from the “blame and shame” that arose from the federal No Child Left Behind era. The idea now is not to punish struggling schools with loss of aid, but to diagnose their problems and help fix them. “To assist,” Kirst said, “you need to know more than the API score.”

But education policy being the lightning rod that it is, there already is pressure from federal education authorities and state lawmakers to dumb the new system back down to a single number between now and next summer, when it becomes effective. It hasn’t helped that an early prototype of the graphic display was widely decried as an indecipherable mess.

Let’s hold off. If the graphics can’t be fixed, maybe compromise later. But a good education has a lot of components, and we need to get past the notion that quality schools are simple. Reading a dashboard shouldn’t be too tall an order for anyone who drives as much as the parent of California kid.

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