California test results on the up and up – partly

October 12, 2012

California’s public schools continued to show gains on the Academic Performance Index (API), a measure of how well students do on the California Standards Tests and, in high school, on the exit exam. For the first time since the testing program began in 1999, a majority of schools reached or exceeded the state’s target of 800 on the index.

Results of the spring 2012 exams, released yesterday by the State Department of Education, showed that 53 percent of schools met the mark, 4 percentage points above last year.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the growth is especially noteworthy given the years of budget cuts that schools have endured. “The incredible efforts of teachers, administrators, school employees, parents, and students should serve as an inspiration to us all. While there’s still more work to do, California’s schools have earned a vote of confidence,” said Torlakson in a written statement accompanying the announcement.

Percentage of schools meeting or exceeding 800 API by grade levels. Source: California Dept. of Education. (Click to enlarge)

A little disaggregation, however, calls to mind former President Bill Clinton’s rallying cry at the recent Democratic National Convention: “It’s arithmetic!” Break down the numbers and it’s basically elementary schools that are responsible for pushing the average over the halfway point. Fifty-nine percent of elementary schools met or exceeded an 800 API, followed by 49 percent of middle schools. High schools lagged considerably, with just 30 percent meeting or going beyond the target.

There’s no clear-cut answer for why this is so. Some studies have found that high schools are failing to engage students, others say students are bored. Sherry Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), suggests there’s no incentive to do well because the tests have no bearing on a student’s grades, graduation, or college applications. “We believe high schools are challenged by the fact that students don’t care about the California Standards Tests or the results,” said Griffith. “It counts for nothing for them.”

That’s why ACSA sponsored AB 2001 in the just concluded legislative session. The bill, by Democratic Assemblymember Susan Bonilla of Concord, would have

Gaps in achieving API target of 800 by racial and ethnic subgroups. Source: California Dept. of Education. (Click to enlarge)

required the State Department of Education to expand California’s assessment program through grade 12 (currently students in second through eleventh grades take the exams) and to develop a plan for making the tests more meaningful to students. The bill died in the Senate appropriations committee, but ACSA may reintroduce it.

Stanley Rabinowitz, the director of Assessment & Standards Development Services at WestEd, said how much effort high school students put into the California Standards Test is often up to the values of school leaders. “I’ve seen schools work with their students to say, ‘we’re all in this together, the content matters for you individually and the results matter for the school. You need to take pride in what you’re doing and you need to take pride in your school,’” said Rabinowitz. “It works very well, but only if it’s a joint decision between the administration working with the teachers and the students.”

The buzz saw of No Child Left Behind

Notwithstanding the positive news on API scores, a record seven out of 10 California schools receiving federal Title I aid now fall under sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Law.

Parents wouldn’t know that from looking at the School Quality Snapshot, a snazzy two-page graphic summary of every school’s performance that the Department of Education released yesterday. It includes standardized test results, API scores, records on student suspensions and expulsions, even physical fitness test results (go here to search for your favorite school’s report). What’s not included is whether the school is in Program Improvement, the formal name for the much disliked NCLB penalties.

Torlakson made it clear the state is downplaying Program Improvement while it waits to hear from the U.S. Department of Education on whether the state’s request for a waiver from NCLB has been approved.

“California’s request for a waiver from the requirements of NCLB is still pending,” Torlakson said in a press release. “While we’re waiting for the flexibility we need, we’re not going to allow a flawed system to distract us from the work we’re doing to help schools improve.”

Thirty-three states have received waivers from NCLB releasing them from the restrictions of  Program Improvement, which, at a minimum, requires schools that don’t make academic targets two consecutive years to commit 20 percent of their Title I dollars to offer after-school tutoring and to transport students to a higher-scoring school if their parents choose to transfer. Schools that have continued to miss their targets and remain in Program Improvement for four or more years are required to submit a plan for significant school improvement, although there is no longer any federal funding for it and not a lot of enforcement to see if the plans really make a difference. About a third – 2,079 of 6,209 Title I schools in California – have now been in Program Improvement for four or more years, and most have little chance of exiting it. That’s because the requirements for meeting academic targets have been getting harder every year; most educators agree the requirements are implausible.

In the fast march toward 100 percent student proficiency two years from now, 78 percent of middle and elementary school students were supposed to be proficient in English language arts and 79 percent proficient in math to meet this year’s target called Adequate Yearly Progress. Source: State Adequate Yearly Progress Report Information Guide (click to enlarge).

Passed by Congress a decade ago, NCLB requires 100 percent proficiency by 2014, for every subgroup of students in every school, including students with disabilities, English learners, low-income students, and significant racial and ethnic groups. The bar has been raised every year; for the current year, between 78 and 80 percent of students must be proficient on CSTs in math and English language arts. Only 26 percent of all 9,905 schools and 18 percent of Title I schools made those targets. Most of those were wealthier schools with fewer subgroups.

“As the Annual Measurable Objectives (yearly targets) got higher and higher,” said Rabinowitz, “the system was rigged against diverse schools and large schools, and California has a lot of those. Moving forward we need to think about what’s the next generation of accountability systems that are fairer and more appropriate for the conditions we’re dealing with.”

The state and federal school accountability systems are very different, which is why the state Department of Education can boast that 59 percent of elementary schools met their API goal of 800, while, at the same time, only 27 percent met their annual target under NCLB. The state measures growth in achievement, while the feds measure the percentage of students who have reached proficiency, without crediting progress toward that goal. (The state’s 800 goal for API is just a round number; 875 is actually the score for reaching schoolwide proficiency.)

There are virtues in both systems, Rabinowitz said, but NCLB, with its aspirational goal of proficiency for all, ran into problems. “While it made sense from a non-technical perspective, implementing it had a lot of challenges. And that’s what we’ve been dealing with in California and other states,” he said.

Recognizing that states were about to run into a wall, yet unable to reach agreement with Republicans in Congress over how to fix or replace NCLB, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered states the opportunity for a waiver. Gov. Jerry Brown, Torlakson, and the State Board of Education didn’t like the demands that came with it, which included a commitment to adopt a statewide teacher and principal evaluation system that incorporated test scores. So they ignored Duncan’s waiver form and submitted their own version through another provision in NCLB.

Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the advocacy group Education Trust-West, predicts that the feds will reject the waiver soon after next month’s presidential election. He said California missed an opportunity.

“It’s an application in name only,” he said. If California had submitted a real waiver, it could now be in the position of other states that have created one accountability system – their own – that identified the lowest-performing schools most in need of improvement as well as those schools that have closed the achievement gap and deserve recognition. California’s system does neither, Ramanathan said.

Until the state does get a waiver, California must live with NCLB’s regulations. Districts will not have flexibility to use Title I money, they must notify parents of students in a Program Improvement school that they can transfer, and the Department of Education must keep its compliance bureaucracy intact.

Christine Swenson, director of the state Education Department’s Improvement and Accountability Division, said that monitoring of districts will continue. Districts with schools in Year Five of Program Improvement that fail to implement their school turnaround plan could lose Title I money, although she acknowledged that this has yet to happen.

A technical note: Program Improvement is often portrayed as a Venus Flytrap, easy to fall into, impossible to escape. That’s not quite true. NCLB includes an easier, alternative way of determining whether a school has made its annual academic targets.

Seventy-nine schools exited Program Improvement this year using the safe harbor provision under NCLB. Source: State Department of Education (click to enlarge).

Called a safe harbor provision, its chief requirement is that a school decrease the number of non-proficient students in every subgroup by 10 percent each year. So if only 40 percent of a subgroup such as students with disabilities scored proficient, next year, an additional 6 percent of students must be proficient (10 percent of 60) or 46 percent. That’s a lot less than 80 percent proficiency, the overall target for this year.

To exit from Program Improvement, a school must meet its academic targets two consecutive years. As the accompanying chart shows, this year 79 school escaped Program Improvement, probably through Safe Harbor. An additional 323 schools in Program Improvement made their target the first of two years.


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