Education leaders call for overhaul of state's school accountability system


Photo by Hans Gerwitz

Photo by Hans Gerwitz

UPDATE:  The State Board of Education approved seeking an NCLB waiver under Section 9401 of the law on May 10, 2012. 

As state education leaders consider whether to seek a waiver from the most onerous provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, they are also proposing a “comprehensive review” of the state’s accountability system put in place in 1999. The State Board of Education will start discussing what an updated state accountability system might look like at its meeting in Sacramento today.

The outline of an updated state accountability system is spelled out in a draft letter signed by State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson “on behalf of all California districts” to the Obama administration seeking exemption from key provisions of the NCLB law that labels increasing numbers of schools as failing.

For the past decade, California has operated under two often conflicting accountability systems — the state’s accountability system put into place through the Public School Accountability Act of 1999, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2002. As a result, the same schools can be simultaneously labeled as succeeding or failing, depending on the accountability measures being used.

The state’s system has emphasized to a far greater extent whether a school’s or district’s scores improve from one year to the next. The federal system, while also demanding improvements, requires states every year to set ever-higher absolute benchmarks that schools must reach in order to avoid being labeled as in need of “program improvement.”

In their draft letter to Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin, to be reviewed by the State Board today, Torlakson and Kirst said “we are seeking to return to a single system of school accountability that is both understandable and rigorous.”

Under the plan they propose, the Academic Performance Index — the main state measure of schools, which ranks them on a scale ranging from 200 to 1,000 — would remain “at the core” of the state’s accountability system. But a revision of the law would address one little-noticed outcome of the state system that sets reaching an API of 800 as the main goal schools have to reach. Once a school achieves an 800 API, it no longer is required to meet any further annual growth targets.

In 1999, the first year California’s accountability system went into effect, 787 schools had API scores of 800 or more — 11 percent of all California schools. By 2011, the figure had soared to 4,103 schools, or 40 percent of all schools, meaning that thousands of schools are effectively outside the state’s accountability system. As Torlakson and Kirst explain in their draft letter to Yudin:

We need to carefully examine the effects of the target structure, particularly for schools that have long met the statewide target, to encourage continued focus on students who are not proficient.

Moreover, in the plan outlined by Torlakson and Kirst, California’s updated accountability system would “focus attention on the schools with the most intractable problems” rather than on schools that “bounce in and out of improvement status from year to year.” One of the most novel ideas proposed by Torlakson and Kirst is to introduce a multiyear “rolling” accountability measure “to smooth out fluctuations in scores from year to year.”

According to a summary of a meeting of representatives of numerous education organizations convened by WestEd to discuss the overhaul, “the criteria should differentiate between schools and districts that are not improving and those that are slowly but steadily improving, and offer those that are improving a way to exit underperforming status.”

The State Board would also review the numerous sanctions currently imposed on schools under the state system for those that failed to meet their growth targets.

Under current state law (Education Code Section 52055.5), the California Department of Education can impose a range of sweeping sanctions on schools and districts that fail to meet state growth targets within a certain period of time, including replacing district personnel, removing schools from the jurisdiction of the district, and establishing  alternative governance and supervision. It can appoint a state receiver or trustee, abolish or restructure the district, or allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools.

The state wouldn’t abolish these sanctions, but would also consider a range of “improvement activities” chosen “based on the needs of the school and district, as determined by local data analysis and the qualitative judgments of individuals who are familiar with the school and district.”

As Kirst explained in an interview, “This does not mean there won’t be punitive action, merely that the board will attempt to build more human judgment into the process, so that the decision is not driven by numbers alone. The idea is to take a more nuanced and knowledgeable approach to assigning both improvement activities and sanctions.”

The improvement activities would “largely focus on instruction, including activities that promote teacher collaboration and instructional coaching.”

What’s more, rather than basing state interventions and sanctions solely on test scores, an updated state accountability system might also incorporate an idea proposed last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown to  use “local review panels” to identify problems and follow-up activities at a particular school.

Kirst says that a thorough review of the state’s accountability system is needed, if only because the passage of time demands it. “The law was passed in 1999, and it is now 2012,” he said.

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