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.

  • The percentage of California schools that have made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has plummeted from 74 percent to 40 percent between 2005-06 and 2009-10, as this EdSource chart shows:
Percent of schools meeting AYP goals decreases over time
  • The number of schools in need of “program improvement”—tantamount to failure under the NCLB rules—has nearly tripled, from 1,200 in 2003-04 to 3,169 in 2010-11.
  • And this year, an astonishing 4,600 schools, or 80 percent of so-called Title 1 schools serving large numbers of poor children, will be stuck with the stigmatizing “program improvement” label, Superintendent of  Public Instruction Tom Torlakson disclosed that last week.
Number of schools in "Program Improvement" increases over time

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

  • The proportion of schools scoring 800 or more on the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s benchmark for adequate school performance, has increased significantly from 31 percent of schools in 2007 to 46 percent in 2010.
Percent of schools at or above 800 on API increases over time
  • The main reason that schools do better on California’s accountability system is because of the state’s emphasis on measuring improvement in growth in student outcomes from year to year, rather than on meeting fixed “proficiency” targets set by the federal system. Thus, under California’s system, the number of schools which met all their API growth targets increased from 45 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2010.
Percent of schools meeting API growth targets increases over time

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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