For nine of the last 10 years, scores on California’s standardized tests steadily rose, showing the testing system did what it was supposed to do and raised student achievement. That streak ended and exposed an ongoing achievement gap with Thursday’s release of the 2013 Academic Performance Index, or API.
The number of schools meeting the statewide target of 800 on the API fell from 53 percent to 51 percent. Each year the state and individual schools get a base API from the prior year’s tests and a growth target calculated from that base. This year, the overall API declined from a base of 791 to 789. Elementary schools triggered the decrease: 56 percent met the target, down from 59 percent last year. Half of all middle schools hit 800 and 31 percent of high schools made it.
The results also mark the last time the API will be based solely on the narrow measurement of the California Standards Test, as the state’s testing system is undergoing a radical change over the next few years while Common Core State Standards are implemented.
The API measures a school’s academic growth based on students’ scores on California’s standardized tests, known as STAR exams. Not surprisingly, when the State Department of Education released those results earlier this month, the number of students scoring proficient or better on the 2013 exams also fell slightly for the first time in a decade.
Passage rates on the California High School Exit Exam are also factored into the API for grades 10 through 12, although those scores account
for only about 9 percent of a school’s overall API.
The API ranks schools on a scale from 200 to 1000. The target score of 800 means that about 60 percent of students scored proficient or better on the tests and about 40 percent met the basic level.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson described the statewide downturn as a “slight dip,” during a phone call with reporters Thursday morning, and attributed it to years of budgets cuts and the move to Common Core standards.
“All of this is despite very real challenges of budget cuts over the last five years,” Torlakson said, referring to the loss of about $20 billion and 30,000 teachers, as well as what he described as the “heavy lifting underway” as schools shift away from the old standards and the old testing to Common Core standards, a nationwide set of academic guidelines that have been adopted by 45 states.
The current academic year is the first that districts are required to implement Common Core, but some started earlier. Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman said a survey by ETS, which administers the STAR exam program for California, found some correlation between those districts that were implementing Common Core and drops in their scores.
It’s the opposite case in the state’s largest district. In a news release, Los Angeles Unified said it’s “a hopeful sign for the future” that grades 6 and 9, which implemented Common Core standards last year, showed the highest gains in test scores with proficiency rates rising by 2 to 5 percentage points in English and math.
Uneven achievement gap
On the surface, a two-point drop may not seem worrisome, but the decline follows years of double digit increases.
“That’s a pretty big drop off; it’s never been negative before,” said Doug McRae, a retired test developer who helped design the STAR exams.
Still, McRae said that based on actual numbers since the 2002-2003 academic year, when the standards-based tests were put in place, the state’s accountability system had a strong impact.
At that time, just 20 percent of all schools reached the 800 or above.
“They showed gains,” McRae said. “The API attempts to measure whether academic performance going up or down, and by that measure, academic achievement in California has gone up very nicely in 10 years.”
Still, California’s approved achievement hasn’t been reflected in the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called “The Nation’s Report Card.” The tests, called NAEP, are given periodically to a sample of students across the country in reading, writing, math, science, civics and other subjects. On the most recent exams, taken in 2011, California’s fourth grade math scores were below 36 other states, and reading scores were behind 39 other states. In eighth grade, math and reading were both lower than 44 other states. Forty-five states exceeded California on the eleventh grade science test.
Sigman attributed discrepancy to differences in the tests.
“NAEP doesn’t assess California standards or the Common Core standards, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between what NAEP assesses and what is taught in our public schools in California,” Sigman said.
Despite the poor showing on NAEP and the overall drop in this year’s API, the results included positive signs.
“There are some (racial and ethnic) subgroups that actually made progress this year, which is a glimmer of something good,” said Carrie Hahnel, research director for EdTrust-West, an Oakland-based research and advocacy group.
API scores jumped by 5 points each for low-income students and students with disabilities. Scores for English learners grew by 1 point. That trend didn’t hold for students from ethnic and racial groups often considered at risk in school. API results dropped by 2 points for black and African American students, by 3 points for Native Americans and four points each for Filipino and Pacific Islander students. Scores for white students fell as well, by 3 points.
“I don’t think anybody’s satisfied with where we are and what we need to do for our students in poverty and our students who traditionally don’t do as well,” Sigman said.
That should change with implementation of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula, which gives schools additional money for high-needs students, Torlakson said.
Between the LCFF, Common Core standards and the new tests developed by the Smarter Balanced consortium that are aligned to Common Core, California’s API will be based on an entirely different set of weights and measures in the next few years. It’s likely to include graduation and discipline rates as well as harder to quantify matters, such as school climate and student attitudes about learning.
Since its inception, the state’s standardize testing system has been heavily criticized by those who say it encouraged a “teach to the test” culture at the expense of critical thinking and innovation. Regardless of whether the STAR system was loved or hated, it has been the driver for the more sophisticated accountability system in the works.
“Straightforward, easy-to-understand summaries of performance will always have some value and have some place,” said Eric Crane, a senior researcher at nonprofit educational research firm WestEd, who helped develop the API system when he worked at the state Department of Education. “However, more of a whole school view on what students and teachers and, by extension, administrators are doing, can only be helpful.”
Before the API, data collection and analysis was the province of principals and superintendents, Crane said.
“What the API did was really open that conversation to parents and the community to have discussions about school performance that were data based,” Crane said. “In policy work sometimes just the sunlight is a big thing.”
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