Opposition to California's school ranking system grows

March 6, 2012
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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