State Board of Education suspends API for another year

March 11, 2015

State Board of Education member Patricia Rucker.

The State Board of Education suspended the Academic Performance Index for a second year on Wednesday, moving one step closer to the 15-year-old accountability system’s expected demise.

State board President Michael Kirst and other members have made it clear that they intend to replace the API, which calculates a three-digit number based primarily on a school’s or district’s standardized test scores, with a new system in which test scores would be just one of many measures of student achievement and school performance. The extra year will give the board time to figure out what that system should look like and to discuss statutory changes needed to make the transformation happen.

In adopting the Local Control Funding Formula, the Legislature established eight priorities that districts must address. The priorities, which will be core to a new accountability system, include school climate, student engagement, access to courses leading to college and careers and the implementation of new academic standards, such as the Common Core State Standards, as well as measures of student achievement.

By a unanimous vote, the board adopted the recommendations of an advisory committee, which had struggled with attempts to integrate non-test factors, like graduation rates, into the API. The  Public Schools Accountability Advisory Act committee decided instead to urge the board to abandon a single index and launch a new accountability system no earlier than fall 2016.

From a practical standpoint, the state board had little choice but to suspend the API, which the Legislature permitted it to do for two years. This spring, school districts are taking for the first time the Smarter Balanced tests of the Common Core standards in math and English language arts. It could be several years ­before Smarter Balanced scores can be used to judge school and district performance. The state board hasn’t set a timeline, nor has it set statewide target scores for the new tests.

Additionally, the Legislature ordered the state Department of Education to stop giving all other tests based on state standards, while the state creates a new generation of online tests that, like Smarter Balanced, measure more complex learning skills. It will be at least three or four years before the state produces a new social studies test and a science test aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, which the state adopted two years ago.

Over the next year, the state board will decide whether the API should continue in a diminished form, with less clout, as one of many elements in a new accountability system, or disappear.

While the API presented a one-dimensional view of a school, it also had the virtue of simplicity. It offered parents a composite number on which to measure a school’s performance. By requiring the calculation of separate API numbers for student subgroups, it exposed gaps in achievement for low-income students, special education students and Hispanic and African-American children.

Several board members acknowledged that highlighting the achievement gap must not be lost in whatever system replaces the API.

“Whether we think it was the best way to look at a school, there has been progress identifying underperforming subgroups,” said board member Trish Williams. “I heard from families that once they understood the API, they could look at their neighborhood school and decide whether it was where they wanted their child to attend.”

Lupe Aragon, a parent leader from 20th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified, reiterated that point, urging the board not to eliminate a system that is understandable.

Brian Rivas, director of policy and government relations for the advocacy group Education Trust-West, said the state board should be cautious about adding so many measures that a new system loses the focus on equity and “muddies the definition of what we consider a successful school.”

Stephen Blake, a senior adviser for another advocacy group, Children Now, endorsed the concept of multiple measures but said “stakeholder groups had expressed anxiety” over an indefinite period for suspending accountability measures.

Board member Patricia Rucker acknowledged this concern, saying while it is important to “hit the reset button” on a flawed API, the board should set a clear deadline for moving ahead with its replacement.

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