Photo by Klesta

Photo by Klesta

Opposition at the highest levels of state government is emerging against the more than decade-old system of ranking California’s schools on a scale of 1 to 10, based on how they score on the state’s Academic Performance Index.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduced legislation (SB 1458) last week that calls for abolishing the 1 to 10 rankings, along with reforming the Academic Performance Index, or API.

Steinberg noted that over the past decade schools have improved dramatically so that even those which have reached the state target of 800 on the API can still score at the low end of the 1 to 10 scale.

The so-called decile ranking system means that if a school has a 1 rating, its students are performing in the lowest ten percent of the state’s schools, as measured by their Academic Performance Index score. Those who earn the coveted 10 ranking are performing better than 90 percent or more of the state’s schools.

“The problem with ranking one school against another is that you can be in the first and second decile, and even if you improve, you will still be in the first and second decile in relation to other schools,” Steinberg said.

Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, echoed Steinberg’s sentiments. “The idea of using deciles for so much of state policy needs to be reexamined,” he said. “I think it made sense when it was first put in and now it is too inflexible.” In addition, he said, “We have too many laws and regulations tied to the concept of deciles.”

The movement against the decile scale represents a significant pushback against national efforts to rank schools against each other, motivated in part by the untested idea that having schools compete in the education marketplace would force them to improve.

It also embodies the current push led by Gov. Jerry Brown in California against an excessive focus on test scores as the primary, and only, way to measure student achievement.

Under the Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999, schools could get a score ranging from 200 to 1000 on the API, which is based mainly on scores of students on standardized tests.

The law also mandated that schools be awarded a ranking of between 1 and 10 based on grouping them into ten equal groups (or deciles) based on their API score.

Part of the problem is that students in most schools in California are doing dramatically better on state tests than a decade ago, pushing up the API of their schools considerably. The 1 to 10 ranking system no longer makes as meaningful distinctions between schools as it once may have done.

“By definition, no matter how well everyone does, 10 percent of the schools are in the bottom decile,” said Ed Haertel, a leading statistician and researcher at the Stanford University School of Education. “No matter how poorly everyone does, 10 percent of the schools are in the top decile.”

With Haertel’s help, the state also devised a “similar schools” ranking system to take into account differences in student populations that schools served. But that decile ranking system, viewed by many as more useful than the one comparing a school to all others statewide, is also coming under scrutiny as possibly having outlived its usefulness.

The 1 to 10 ranking is used by parents and others as a rough guide to how schools are doing compared to others. It has also been used to classify some schools to determine if they qualify for state support.

However, Haertel noted, in general 1 to 10 rankings have never played a major role in California’s school accountability system. “The accountability system as it is currently structured would work perfectly well without it,” he said.

An analysis by John Mockler, an education consultant and former executive director of the State Board of Education, shows that in 1999, the first year California’s accountability system went into effect, 787 schools had API’s 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. In ten years, Mockler noted, the average API of schools in the lowest decile has increased so that it is now above where the average school scored in 1999.

What that means is that thousands of schools have achieved what the state established as the target they should reach, but they can still earn a low ranking on the decile scale.

Statistics, Steinberg said, “certainly have their place.” But, he added,”they are not always a fair and accurate reflection of what is happening at a school.”

For background on California’s school accountability system, see this report by the California Department of Education.  Also see this EdSource report

Coming:  A closer look at California’s system of ranking “similar schools.” 

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  1. Alan N. 5 years ago5 years ago

    If I am reading the article correctly, in 1999 11% of the schools scored at the "baseline standard" of 800. In 2011 40% of the schools scored at or over 800 and during this same time span the schools in the lowest decile are now at the 1999 state average. So, if I understand the rationale of those who would like to eliminate the API, improving test scores is a "bad thing?" … Read More

    If I am reading the article correctly, in 1999 11% of the schools scored at the “baseline standard” of 800. In 2011 40% of the schools scored at or over 800 and during this same time span the schools in the lowest decile are now at the 1999 state average. So, if I understand the rationale of those who would like to eliminate the API, improving test scores is a “bad thing?” Isn’t the API a continuous improvement model where scores are meant to increase over time for everyone? You just keep raising the bar! By the way, isn’t the goal to hit “1000” not the basement or 800? I also believe that the similar schools ranking are essential if we are too even think about closing the racial achievement gap and the gap between the urban and suburban schools.

  2. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 5 years ago5 years ago

    The California Academic Performance Index should be retained as it is- at a weight of 60% of a school's standing, not the proposed watered-down less-than-half of 40% that Senator Darrell Steinberg is pushing. Tinkering with the API is not in the public interest -- not kids', not parents', not communities'. The decile-rating system gives additional weight to the comparability of schools' API scores. Democratic Senator Steinberg is carrying water for the second time in … Read More

    The California Academic Performance Index should be retained as it is- at a weight of 60% of a school’s standing, not the proposed watered-down less-than-half of 40% that Senator Darrell Steinberg is pushing. Tinkering with the API is not in the public interest — not kids’, not parents’, not communities’. The decile-rating system gives additional weight to the comparability of schools’ API scores.

    Democratic Senator Steinberg is carrying water for the second time in one year for the powerful California Teachers Association that wants to eliminate test-based accountability in this state to protect its teacher-members from controversial “value-added” use of scores to determine employability, as is happening in New York and Los Angeles. Steinberg is being backed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson who is himself a former teacher and termed-out member of the State Senate. They are in effect lobbying for a very special interest group that supports Democrats up for state and local elections.

    But the API is about student learning, not legislator lobbying. It is based on results from standardized tests which are themselves based on statewide academic standards for what students in grades 2 – 11 should be taught and should learn, notably in the gateway skills of reading and math. The API for every student and every school is published annually. The API is the sole source of substantive information about our public schools available to communities and to parents.

    I believe a “successful school” depends on many factors that cannot be measured on a test, but our knowing how our kids are doing in reading and math is fundamental. Eliminating or gutting this essential public accountability measure would be regressive and would damage California public education.

  3. Peter Jones 5 years ago5 years ago

    The problem with the current system is that it does not measure what it purports to measure - successful schools. The use of standardized test scores, while measuring some aspects of what a school is trying to accomplish, are not a measure of many aspects of schooling. Until we define what the outcome objects of schooling are and define, specifically, how we are going to measure those outcomes the narrow measures of standardized tests will … Read More

    The problem with the current system is that it does not measure what it purports to measure – successful schools. The use of standardized test scores, while measuring some aspects of what a school is trying to accomplish, are not a measure of many aspects of schooling. Until we define what the outcome objects of schooling are and define, specifically, how we are going to measure those outcomes the narrow measures of standardized tests will be the root of our narrative about schools. The basis of our current narrative about what schools are and what they mean to us as a society are driven by test scores. We all know that ‘schooling’ is much more than that.