API will soon lose its clout as shorthand for defining school success

October 23, 2013

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For more than a decade, the Academic Performance Index has defined the public’s perception of a school.

Parents relied on the three-digit number, tied exclusively to scores on standardized tests, to decide where to send their children. Realtors used it to set the price of homes near “good schools.” Superintendents judged principals by how close their school’s API came to the totemic “800.”

But now the API’s power – some would call it tyranny – is waning. In the near term, the API will be a husk of its former self and may disappear for a couple of years. Longer term, it will become just one of many gauges of school performance – demoted from sheriff of accountability to the rank of sergeant.

The passage of Assembly Bill 484, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, on behalf of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, suspends most of the standardized tests that had been given annually from grades 3 to 11, with no timeline for replacing many of them (see accompanying story).

In 2014, AB 484 requires that districts give a preliminary or “field” test in the Common Core standards – new, nationally aligned learning goals the state is implementing – instead of tests on state standards in math and English language arts. A field test provides valuable information to the test’s creator – the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, in this case – but not valid scores for comparing schools or students.

As a result, for the first time since API was created in 1999, the State Board is likely to vote to suspend it next year. And the Board could decide to suspend the API again in 2015, on the grounds that there needs to be at least a couple of years of results from the official Common Core tests for math and English language arts before starting to judge schools by them.

These are the test components that made up this year’s API for elementary and middle schools (top) and high schools. CST stands for the California Standards Tests in various subjects. CAPA and CMA are acronyms for alternative standards tests that studies with disabilities take. Math and English language arts count the most, leading to criticism that the API has contributed to a narrowing of the curriculum. Source: API Information Guide, page 11

Even before AB 484 scrambled the state standardized tests on which the API is calculated, the API was facing a makeover. It took Senate President pro Tem Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, two tries to convince Gov. Jerry Brown, but in 2012 the governor signed Senate Bill 1458, which requires building in other measures besides standardized tests into the API.

Starting in 2016-17, at least 40 percent of a high school’s API score must include indicators of college and career readiness, such as graduation rates, dropout rates or the proportion of students who graduate with courses required for admission to University of California and California State University. (The State Board will determine which factors to include.) SB 1458 allows non-test measures to be introduced into elementary and middle school API scores as well.

In a statement after the bill was signed, Steinberg cited what many educators and policy advocates had long concluded about the API. “For years, ‘teaching to the test’ has become more than a worn cliché because 100 percent of the API relied on bubble test scores in limited subject areas,” he said. “But life is not a bubble test and that system has failed our kids.”

With a point system of 200 to 1,000 points and a target score of 800, the API has been weighted heavily toward the results of state English language arts and math tests. Those two subjects comprised 90 percent of a K-8 school’s API last year, with social studies and science making up 10 percent. For high school, math and English language arts tests in grades 9-11 made up 45 percent of the API, with end-of-course science tests next at 23 percent, history and social science at 14 percent, and scores on the high school exit exam the remaining 18 percent. SB 1458 encourages giving more weight to social science and science tests in response to the widely shared criticism that a math- and English-heavy point system had discouraged K-8 teachers from making time for other subjects.

Include non-test measures

The Local Control Funding Formula lays out eight priority areas for evaluating the effectiveness of a school. Click to enlarge. Credit: Legislative Analyst’s Office

SB 1458 takes the view that the API should be mended to incorporate broader indices of a school’s performance.

The Local Control Funding Formula, the new school financing system that Brown pushed and the Legislature passed this year, takes this one step further, while doing an end-run around the API. The funding law’s new Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which every district must adopt as of July 1, lists eight priorities that schools and districts should be judged on and school funding should be aligned to.

API scores are one of a half-dozen indices in just one priority – pupil achievement. Other achievement measures include the English learner reclassification rate, the percentage of students in a school who pass Advanced Placement exams and the percentage of students who graduate college ready. The other priorities include school climate, pupil engagement and implementation of the Common Core standards.

Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, which will create the template for the LCAP that districts will use, says that the API “will morph into a broader set of measures” that local districts will use to set goals under their Local Control and Accountability Plan. The API will remain in law, but its primacy will end, he said.

Sue Burr, a former executive director of the State Board and now a member, agreed. In passing the new finance system, Gov. Brown and the Legislature were thinking of “a more robust way of evaluating schools, not just a single number,” she said.

Steinberg was one of the key negotiators with the Brown administrators on the Local Control Funding Formula. But the two laws aren’t fully in sync on the mechanics of the API. The funding law appears to favor presenting data as a dashboard. Just as your car’s gauges give separate readings – gas in the tank, speedometer, temperature, oil, RPMs, tire pressure – that create a composite picture of a car’s performance, the LCAP envisions a report with multiple indexes illustrating eight priorities.

SB 1458 calls for shoehorning non-test measures into the API. Translating graduation and dropout rates or performance in Advanced Placement courses into a three-digit index is problematic, and it remains to be seen, with the LCAP as an alternative, how eager the State Board will be to try.

Burr suggested that, once the LCAP is in place, the public’s desire for a single number defining performance “may diminish over time.”

But Susanna Cooper, Steinberg’s primary education consultant, said it was premature to predict the API’s demise.

“The big question is how do the API and LCAP fit together? Not sure anyone knows that yet,” she said. “The beauty of the API is also its weakness: its simplicity. People understand what they think it means.”

“It’s a leap of faith,” she continued, “to say that the API will lose its primacy and that the LCAP will capture the attention of the public in the same way that the API has. It’s human nature that parents will look at the LCAP and say, ‘There is the API. ’”

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