New state schools report card is colorful, but confusing

Students work in the computer lab at Cuyama Valley High School in Santa Barbara County after taking the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests in April 2015.
Students work in the computer lab at Cuyama Valley High School in Santa Barbara County after taking the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests in April 2015. Associated Press file

In the TV series “Arrested Development,” teenager Maeby’s parents had previously sent her to Boston Sunshine Academy, where her report card went something like this: “Math makes Maeby feel (drawing of sun behind clouds). Science makes Maeby feel (drawing of Elvis).”

Fairly or not, it’s hard not to think of that every time I look at the new color-coded chart drafted for the state Board of Education as the new way of grading public schools. Green is for happy. Red is for sad. Blue is for optimistic? As for the other colors, maybe Elvis?

You could immerse yourself for an hour or so, trying to figure out precisely what this complicated chart means – with two columns of colors (one for performance, one for improvement) and a third column of colored descriptions, which haven’t been determined yet, to designate how well low-income students and other subgroups are doing – and still be confused.

Is it a good school, one where a student stands a terrific chance of learning the material needed for admission to college? And armed with charts for all the schools within a several-mile radius, would you be able to tell which one is the highest-achieving? Or which one appears academically like the sun hiding behind a cloud?

In 2014, the state rightly refused to report scores on the annual standards tests as it switched to the Common Core curriculum and later suspended the Academic Performance Index, used for 15 years or so to measure schools. The API was based almost solely on results of those tests, making it an overly narrow measurement of what schools were achieving. But it was a clear one.

Teachers understandably started “teaching to the test,” and that led to a necessary backlash under which Congress replaced the badly flawed No Child Left Behind Act, and the state began developing a more rounded way of measuring school performance.

But finding the balance between well-roundedness and clarity isn’t easy, and it has so far eluded the state Board of Education. Instead, what we have is a well-intentioned tangle of colors that would more confuse the public than enlighten it.

There are too many factors – suspension rates and absenteeism rates and parent engagement and something called “implementation of academic standards” – that all come with colors and codes but don’t necessarily mean anything about whether a school is producing well-educated students.

The state could offer a separate report on suspensions and absences for interested parents, but it needs to focus the accountability report on whether the job is getting done. A school can get parents involved and still do a terrible job of teaching children. Any school can lower its suspension rate to zero. But will its students learn the knowledge and skills for a bright future?

Strange to say, the chart is missing a promising element that had been talked about: student portfolios, which are meaningful measurements of academic achievement and the skills needed for work and college. Those are harder to measure than multiple-choice tests, but some school districts across the nation are having success with this.

California has waited years for a better school report card, but it doesn’t have one yet. This one makes us feel like a foggy day – color-tinted, but foggy.

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