(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

It probably could have been predicted a decade ago. The way the American political system judges schools – indeed the whole center of gravity of educational accountability – is shifting again. From a rigid reliance on test-based numbers, which was the fashion of the big state and federal education laws of the George W. Bush era, the pendulum is slowly swinging back toward breadth, flexibility, and moderation.

In California, the most recent example – and the most encouraging – is Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547. The bill would replace API, the 12-year-old Academic Performance Index, which, in rating each school and district, narrowly focused on standardized tests in reading and math, with a much broader set of standards.

The criteria would still include the standardized tests – accounting for a minimum of 40 percent in elementary schools, a maximum of 40 percent in high schools – on a new Education Quality Index (EQI). But they would also comprise, in the upper schools, dropout and graduation rates, readiness for college and careers, and a set of other items yet to be determined (among the possibilities: a Pupil Growth Index, a Pupil Engagement Index, and an Innovation Index).

Given the generational swings in American education fashion, the shift, both at the national level and in California, was almost inevitable, but it’s still a major improvement over the current standards.

SB 547 is not a perfect bill – and can’t be. Can things like “pupil growth” or innovation or love of literature or citizenship ever be reliably reduced to numbers? Worse, perhaps, is that Americans’ ambivalence about what they want from their schools makes the standards by which they measure them ever-mutable, uncertain, and sometimes controversial. At any given time, half of us will be unhappy with “the schools.”

Conflicting, changing measures of achievement

As a nation of fact hunters, we want hard numbers by which to judge achievement and hold the schools accountable, but we want the system to be forgiving as well: meritocracy and democracy. No excuses, but give the child (the school, the teacher) a second chance, make allowances and provide special programs for special education students and English learners.

The Steinberg bill necessarily leaves a lot of the specific criteria-setting to state education officials and to a committee of informed citizens. Among those criteria, it might also have usefully included a measure of students’ cultural literacy. But the bill is a sign that the ice is breaking.

There’s belief in Sacramento that Gov. Jerry Brown, who now has SB 547 on his desk, will veto it and demand still moreflexibility. A few months ago Brown, the Jesuit-humanist who seems leery of school policy that’s excessively numbers driven, vetoed CALTIDES, the California teacher data system, and not just because he’s beholden to the unions.

Still, it would be unfortunate if he blocked this bill as well. On all scores – the double meaning is intended – this bill could be the start of a sequence of major improvements over the narrow system we have now.

Americans have been tinkering with the schools and debating true beliefs about how children learn and what they should learn for more than a century and a half: progressive education vs. traditional schooling; phonics vs. so-called look-say or whole language; more homework vs. less homework or no homework; grade retention vs. social promotion; discovery learning vs. direct instruction; constructivist math vs. math facts…. The list runs to the horizon and beyond.

The current era began before the passage of No Child Left Behind, the paradigmatic education law of the early Bush years, but NCLB effectively represents it. By the year 2014 all children were to be “proficient” in reading and math. But it left the definition of “proficiency” to each state, many of which changed the definition in order to look successful. It skewed school curricula, brought about widespread cheating, and generated almost no improvement.

NCLB’s one great advantage was that by requiring each major subgroup to be assessed and make adequate progress, it pressed states and districts to pay attention to a lot of kids who had been ignored: special ed students, ethnic minorities, and those who came to school speaking little or no English.

But the effective target – universal proficiency, as defined by each state – was either impossible to achieve or fatally dumbed down. And the reformers’ favored remedies – starting charter schools, firing teachers and principals of failing schools or otherwise “reconstituting” those schools, throttling teachers unions – rarely work. There is no pedagogues’ cavalry out there ready to charge to the rescue.

So now, as the damage becomes obvious – as NCLB stigmatizes good schools for one perceived failure or another, or as the same school is declared exemplary by one set of criteria and condemned by another – the reexamination that should have taken place years ago begins, and the rollbacks with it. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is offering wholesale waivers to states that will accept some version of his standards in place of the Bush standards.

Duncan’s Race to the Top may turn out to be no better than and just as narrow as NCLB, but the waivers he is now proposing are a sign that things aren’t working. The vast majority of schools are still a long way from the broad, humanistic standards that the best practitioners, here and abroad, strive for. And no doubt Steinberg’s bill, if it ever becomes law, will need tweaking as its unintended consequences appear. But it’s still a promising step toward a more rational and intelligent way of judging our schools.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, where today’s article also appeared,  and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Filed under: Commentary, No Child Left Behind, State and Federal Policies, Tests and Assessments · Tags: , , ,

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  1. CarolineSF says:

    Great post, @el.

  2. We live in an imperfect world. Entire schools — principals and teachers — have cheated to do well on standardized tests. Districts add tests to state tests, eroding curricular opportunities for art and music and growing a garden or going to live theater at night. Kids rebel and throw themselves around at home about grade school homework. Parents are told they’re the third leg of the stool and everything will collapse if they don’t “reinforce” the day’s school-learning. It’s hell out there.
    But teachers’ classroom work (based on California subject standards) is more closely followed these days by principals; principals have incentives to visit classrooms frequently to learn where students stand. If kids are falling short of mastery, principals discuss these to-do topics with their faculties and teachers work in groups to share and improve classroom strategies. Schools in poor neighborhoods scrounge for grants for tutorial time with students to improve academic prowess.  Kids cannot graduate from high school before passing the California High School Exit Exam. When all is said and done, communities look at school API scores published every August and make a general judgment about whether we’re “on the right track” or not.
    We may detest aspects of the API-based system. We need to work on dropouts, more writing and more applied learning.  But you don’t trash the API for an almost laughable EQI. In the last decade, with our academic standards, subject area tests and API school scores, there has developed a sense of common purpose: principals are out of their offices; families are participating and can change out of persistently low-scoring schools if they wish; classrooms are no longer islands where one teacher closes the door and does his or her thing answerable to no one, getting feedback from no one, sharing with no one  — alone and gifted or alone and drowning and covering up.
    I don’t think public schools should be closed or turned into charters because of low scores, I think they should be improved. California subject standards and annual tests for students grades 2-11 and the yearly published Academic Performance Index are helping us get there. The API should be retained.

  3. el says:

    I don’t think the API is some magic measure that necessarily tells us much at all about a school. It’s nice when it matches your expectations and high ones suggest the kids are doing well, but it doesn’t say they are doing their best, and if the scores are low, it doesn’t tell you why. It’s a beginning of a conversation, not the end.
    The 800 number is arbitrary. And the growth model is kind of inexplicable when you really analyze it. The idea that we’ll do 5 points better with each class – when each class is so different – has the built in assumption that everyone in schools sucks and promises to suck a little less. Yet, if we were really honest, we should either believe that everyone sucks and demand immediate shape-up to 100% proficiency, or admit that often our educators are doing very well by the kids given the tools at hand and that maybe there’s some more productive way to improve schools than shouting insults from the sideline.
    Of course, I was in high school in the 1980′s, during the CAP era, where growth was prized above all else. The senior class before mine went from patterns on the bubble tests to actually making an effort – netting the school $80,000 in rewards. Most of the $80k – ah the school administration was proud! – went right into a brand new electronic scoreboard for the football team. AWESOME!
    The next year, the vice-principal was certain that our class could do the same. I remember looking at him right in the eye and telling him it was mathematically impossible for us to show dramatic improvement over those scores, and then having the cheek to point out that the optimal strategy was for us to throw the test so that the next class could again show “amazing” gains for another five-figure check. I think he turned purple. Clearly he had no appreciation for the excellent education I had received in game theory. :-)

  4. I am surprised and sorry that distinguished writer Peter Schrag has decided to shill for SB 541 — a bad idea designed to ditch use of the Academic Performance Index in California. The API is the ONLY  truly useful tool parents, communities and stakeholders have had to figure out whether or not their public schools are improving academically  in reading, math, social studies and science.
    Furthermore Schrag falsely equates the API  with No Child Left Behind  and its draconian deadlines and rules for perfection or school dissolution. The API is derived from  annual testing of students  in grades 2-11 in reading, math, social studies and science; is based on kids having learning these subjects (and others) as defined by excellent California Standards; and the educationally sound goal is for schools to show “continuous improvement”over time.  In the last decade since we’ve had the API, there has been significant demonstrated improvement in the quality of California public education because, with measurement, everyone has worked harder to do better.
    SB 541 is complicated doubletalk offered by State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a friend of the California Teachers Association (CTA.) SB 541 is  designed with varying “indices” for different grade levels claiming to “measure” different aspects of school life and, bottom line, it ends up measuring amorphous “educational quality” rather than achievement in academic subjects.  I am skeptical of  SB 541′s  “Educational Quality Index” that purports to define a  student’s “college readiness” or “career readiness”or much of anything else.
    The truth is that CTA is worrying about the growing use of tests to evaluate seriously the  classroom performance of its teacher members — not just kids’ math and reading and social studies and science –  so what better way to kill off that trend than by killing off the API? It’s brilliant strategy and CTA has a lot of friends in Sac. I hope Governor Brown realizes that SB541 is not in the public interest and that he will veto it. We are counting on his innate good sense.

  5. John S. Leyba says:

    I’m not crazy about student (and teacher) performance metrics, but I will offer this anecdote. For years, in several poor school districts in East San Jose, school board members pounded their chests about how their schools, and their kids, were as good as, if not “better” than the other kids across town, in Saratoga and Palo Alto.
    It wasn’t until APIs came out showing schools in the 400s and 500s that parents had a concrete tool with which to bludgeon their board members. They are imperfect tools, yes, but they are still very necessary. For the basics, APIs, like the SAT-9, CTBS, and all the other tests (which yes, I took as a child in the 1980s), these exams do well to assess students.

  6. Greg Austin says:

    You might be interested in the new state School Climate Report Card, which contains a summary Index score.  They are being prepared for the schools participating in the California Safe and Supportive Schools project and can be downloaded from CDE’s Dataquest.

  7. Michael G. says:

    Why the rush to implement a set of scores when we don’t even know what the new criteria will be?  Shoot first and ask questions afterwards?  This reeks of pandering to the CTA which hates, just *hates* anything concrete and would love to be measured by fuzzy things which can’t be measured.
    How about this.  Test things that *can* be measured and don’t test things that can’t be tested.
    There is no measure or test for creativity, love of learning, or any of the other fuzziness the innumerate are so in love with so we won’t test it.  Doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just won’t count in the API.  It didn’t count before for anything so nothing has changed except we would _so000_ like to know that kids are getting good at math and reading, and that teachers are actually teaching the material the standards say they should be teaching.  Based on past experience, that has always been a hit or miss thing so lets try for more hits, okay?  I mean that’s what teachers get paid to do.  Readin’, ‘ritin’, ‘rthmetic – everything else is airy stuff you made up to compensate for not teaching the basics.

  8. W Salazar says:

    Paul’s first question is a good one: “Will schools now be judged 50% by career readiness with no additional funding[...]?”  The more I read about it, the more it sounds like Steinberg’s bill mimics a traditional federal ploy — hold schools accountable for more without providing the adequate resources for them to meet those standards.  Why aren’t CSBA, PTA and the other groups who are fighting for adequate school funding asking for a veto of this bill?

  9. CarolineSF says:

    This is what really worries me: “Can things like “pupil growth” or innovation or love of literature or citizenship ever be reliably reduced to numbers?” … because the minute we start trying to do that, the culture shifts to doing whatever it takes to get the numbers up.

    The other thing, of course, is that practically everything we try to quantify is something that inherently tops the charts among the wealthy and highly educated, and the converse among the disadvantaged, and in my opinion it’s nearly impossible to control for that effectively. So as usual, by all measures, schools and teachers serving the privileged will be judged highly effective, and poor kids’ schools — and the kids themselves — will be damned as failures — when the issue is actually poverty and the ills that accompany it.

  10. Paul Muench says:

    Will schools now be judged 50% by career readiness with no additional funding or diversion of funding, or will the state board now have authority to apportion 50% of school funding to career readiness?  Or whatever percentage they decide to use.  So are we creating some unfunded mandates?  Or are we giving the state board a lot more authority?  Neither seems a small change to me.  Can we really experiment and leave the details to later?  Has Peter Schrag decided that California Dreamin’ is OK again?  Now, that really has me worried :)