Time to end California’s conflicting accountability systems

August 30, 2011
Californians can’t be blamed for being confused about whether their schools are doing well or badly.

That’s because for the past decade Californians have lived with two conflicting ways of holding schools accountable for the performance of their students—a state and a federal one.

Depending on which system they turn to, Californians might be told that the very same school is either failing or succeeding.

As efforts pick up both in Washington and Sacramento to reform their respective accountability systems—and new assessments are devised under the “common core” initiative—this is the best imaginable time to work toward a single measure of rating California’s schools.

Education insiders may be able parse the conflicting systems. But for the average Californian, the dueling systems are much more likely to confound than clarify.

That is likely to continue to be the case when California releases its updated list of “program improvement” schools—the closest a school gets to being declared “failing” under the No Child Left Behind law—this week.

By the measuring stick established by NCLB, California’s public school system is doing poorly—and getting worse each year.

But based on results on California’s own accountability system, the picture is just the reverse: California schools are improving steadily each year.

Still confused? Try understanding the recent report, which found California students did far better on state tests than they did on the nationally administered National Assessment of Education Progress.

That seemed to conflict with the optimistic results of California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), which showed more students than ever scoring at a proficient level or higher.

Meanwhile, leaders in Washington and Sacramento continue to push for reform of their respective systems. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is considering giving some states waivers from the most onerous, and unattainable, provision of NCLB that all students score at a proficient level or above on state tests by 2014.

But it is far from clear that California will get a waiver, even as more and more schools are effectively labeled as failing under NCLB requirements.

In California, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and others want to revise the Academic Performance Index (API), the cornerstone of the state’s accountability system. In SB 547, now making its way through the Legislature,  the API would be replaced with an Education Quality Index (EQI),  which will be based on multiple measures in addition to test scores.

But these bi-coastal efforts, regardless of their merits, don’t resolve California’s conflicting accountability systems.

From a budgetary standpoint alone, having to maintain these two systems imposes a burdensome and arguably unnecessary expense at a time of extreme fiscal crisis for schools and the state.

This is not just an education or budget problem. It is also a political one. If lawmakers and voters can’t say with certainty whether their multi-billion investment in public education is paying off, it will be extremely difficult to persuade them to make further investments in California’s struggling and cash-starved schools.

Resolving the conflict will depend at least in part on what Congress will do whenever it gets around to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

But until the state is able to bring its system in line with the federal one, or vice versa, confusion will reign. In return for their annual investment of tens of billions of dollars in K-12 schools, Californians are entitled to a far clearer picture of how their schools are doing.

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