Viewpoints

Why charter schools are issuing school report cards

Kindergarten teacher Veronica Fong talks to students on opening day of Lighthouse Charter School in West Sacramento in August 2015.
Kindergarten teacher Veronica Fong talks to students on opening day of Lighthouse Charter School in West Sacramento in August 2015. Sacramento Bee file

A charter school advocacy group recently announced it had created academic accountability reports for every publicly funded school in California. The plan is to update them regularly, providing report cards similar to the state’s now-defunct Academic Performance Index.

But why duplicate the work of public officials? After all, the State Board of Education is readying its own new accountability system.

If only that new system would actually hold schools accountable, or even gave parents and the public a reasonably lucid understanding of how well schools were doing and how much they were improving, compared with other schools.

Instead, what the state has produced is a bewildering grid of numbers and coded colors on so many different aspects that it looks suspiciously like the education board is trying to deliberately obscure the reality of school performance. That’s exactly what reformers and civil rights groups accuse it of doing.

The grid scores an overly broad list of school characteristics, some more important than others, in such a way that it is pretty much impossible to compare schools. Is the local charter better than the magnet school that is not quite as good as the traditional public school? Good luck with that one.

Enter the California Charter Schools Association and its own accountability reports, based mainly on test scores. Whether you like charter schools or not, they know what parents want. Having tasted empowerment, parents are not going back to the days when they couldn’t see how well, or poorly, their child’s school was performing, on its own and compared with others.

And if the state isn’t going to give them the bottom line, organizations such as the charter school association will – or real estate agents, who know that property values have a lot to do with how the local schools are perceived. Or high-achieving individual charter schools will market themselves to neighborhood parents.

The test scores will still be posted on the California Department of Education website. Rocket science isn’t required to turn those numbers into easily digested reports. If the state board’s perplexing color scheme isn’t cleaned up, it will quite likely become irrelevant.

Parents aren’t looking to be drowned in primary-colored data sets about school climate and family involvement. They want to know if their kids will learn – not to mention that the state still hasn’t told anyone how it will identify the bottom 5 percent of schools, the ones where it is obligated to intervene under federal law.

It would be a shame, really, if all this effort by the state ended up being disregarded. The idea behind the new grid was to move the state away from the relentless reliance on test scores, test scores, test scores. They became all that mattered.

Though very low scores obviously reflect a problem and very high ones generally meant students were mastering their English and math, the overemphasis too often meant teaching to the test and neglecting the importance of science, history, foreign languages or anything else that wasn’t on those two annual tests.

But state officials have done everything possible, it seems, to make more meaningful school reports incomprehensible to the point of being inconsequential. The state doesn’t hold a monopoly on the data and others stand ready to fill the void. Those reports will probably be shallower, but at least they’ll be coherent.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com.

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