The school accountability system recently adopted by the State Board of Education has been criticized by some as being “soft,” “vague” and “confusing,” and failing to provide “tight oversight.” Some have even suggested that it is deliberately obscure to impede the identification of low-performing schools.
None of these claims are supported by factual analysis. Most are beneath the dignity of a reasoned debate.
Most of the criticism centers on the fact that the state board has adopted a “multiple measures” approach that evaluates schools and holds them accountable on a variety of dimensions and does not reduce school performance to a single numeric indicator, such as the Academic Performance Index, known as API.
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An analogy may illustrate how a single number conceals, rather than reveals, the health of a school.
Suppose you go to your doctor for a physical exam. Ordinarily, you would expect to get a full report detailing things like blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels and other indicators. Instead, for the sake of simplicity, assume you just get a single number; a Personal Health Index. Let’s say the scale of the index ranges from 200 (very poor health) to 800 (excellent health). You score 700, which is an indication of pretty good, or at least better than average health. But what does this really tell you about your health?
This type of index could conceal the fact that you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or other risk factors. In important ways, you could be less healthy than the average person. This is important information that would not be revealed by a single number. Even worse, a single number would tell you nothing about changes in lifestyle, diet or medication that could improve your health.
So it is with using a single number to assess a school’s health. A single number gives a false sense of precision, inaccurately identifies schools for intervention, and fails to provide information that can guide efforts to improve school health. We know this, because we used a single-number accountability system for more than 15 years, and it was a failure. And now we know why.
A recent study by Policy Analysis for California Education shows that the individual components of a single number system are not highly related to each other. When measures of unrelated indicators are blended into a single score, critical information can be lost. PACE concludes that this practice “fails to identify many schools for improvement that have very low performance in individual indicators.” In other words, far from impeding the identification of low-performing schools, the multiple measures approach does a better job of identifying schools that perform below par on specific dimensions, such as the high school graduation rate or the rates at which English learners gain English proficiency.
Clearly, moving from a single number to multiple measures does not soften accountability; it strengthens it. Proponents of a single-number system ignore the fact that we used that system for more than 15 years, and it failed to produce the improvements we all want. Accountability is important, and it’s important to get it right.
The new system moves beyond the failed approach of blame and shame, and focuses on how to use the accountability system to not only identify schools in need of improvement, but also to incentivize and guide improvement of all schools. That, after all, ought to be the ultimate goal of any accountability system.
Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, is chair of the Assembly Education Committee. Contact him at Assemblymember.ODonnell@assembly.ca.gov.