California is on the verge of finalizing what leading educators believe is the most ambitious attempt in the nation to use multiple dimensions to measure how well – or poorly – a school or district is doing, rather than focusing primarily on test scores.
“All across the country people are paying attention to what California is doing,” Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of the Learning Policy Institute, said at a recent California School Boards Association conference.
The deadline for approving the plan is barely two months away, as required by a state law championed by Gov. Jerry Brown that implemented the Local Control Funding Formula, which reformed both the way schools are funded and how progress will be measured.
The state’s goal has been to come up with a system that will require schools and districts to measure how they are doing on eight “priority areas“ ranging from test scores to less definable measures such as school climate.
But getting agreement on the double challenge of coming up with a more multidimensional system of accountability, and along with it a way to display school and district performance that is easy to understand, is proving to be a challenging undertaking, to say the least.
One reason is that California is attempting to break away from the dominant way schools and districts have been assessed for at least a generation. Another is coming up with a system that meets the needs of a state with a larger and more diverse student population than in most countries, let alone states, as well as an array of education constituencies and interests.
The change has been led by Brown, who has been critical of excessive testing throughout his administration. He is backed by the Legislature, the State Board of Education (whose members he appoints), as well as other key education constituencies such as the state’s leading teachers unions and professional organizations representing school administrators and school board members.
The old system had the advantage of being relatively easy to understand, but fell short because it did not give a complete picture of many aspects of what goes on in a school, and where a school was doing well and where it needed to improve.
“People want simplicity (that test scores provide) but simplicity hasn’t gotten us very far,” said former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. “We really have to look at the breadth of what is going on (in a school or district).”
“All across the country people are paying attention to what California is doing,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute.
Even President Barack Obama, whose administration for most of his presidency has pushed test scores as the primary way to measure school success, has begun to advocate for a less test-heavy system.
“Tests should be just one source of information used alongside classroom surveys and other factors to give us an all-around look at how our students and our schools are doing,” he said in a video posted on Facebook last fall. “Because learning is about so much more than just filling in the bubble.”
In fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act he signed last December will also require states to measure school and district performance on more than just test scores. In addition to scores on math and English, states will have to include graduation rates, progress of English learners, and one other “non-academic” indicator of school quality that states would be free to choose on their own.
California, however, is about to adopt an accountability system that has even more indicators of progress than will be required by the federal law. So far the state has identified seven indicators of performance, but the list may be expanded to 10 later on.
At its most recent meeting earlier this month, the State Board of Education reviewed a prototype chart that summarizes performance on each of these indicators. Progress, or lack of it, is shown by a range of colors, with red and orange on the low end to green and blue at the high end.
But judging from the reactions of board members, and public comments from close to 100 advocates, parents and others at the meeting, a good deal of work still has to be done to come up with a chart that will be viewed as significantly better — and at least as understandable — as the one that it is replacing.
Some board members, for example, said that the multicolored design was too difficult for parents to understand. Bruce Holaday said the state needs a graphic designer to make the display more understandable. “This is not parent user-friendly at this point,” he said. “
Fellow board member Trish Williams said she preferred an earlier version of the chart, which had bolder colors including one where “red was red.” That would signal more clearly to parents areas of “real concern” in a school or district, she said.
Patricia Rucker said she liked the chart, but said that it needed a more complete “narrative explanation” so that it is more understandable.
The multicolored chart also includes an “equity report” showing which student subgroups, based on racial and ethnic background, income levels, and so on, are lagging behind. Holaday suggested the equity report should also show subgroups that are doing well.
Taking a contrary view was board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon said Holaday’s suggestion would dilute the purpose of the new system, which is to clearly show achievement gaps among racial and ethnic student subgroups.
A new “College and Career Indicator” designed to rank how well schools are preparing students for college and careers also prompted a cascade of criticism. Several board members felt that it was skewed too much toward measuring progress of college-bound students, and not sufficiently on those pursuing vocationally oriented careers.
Keric Ashley, the state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, explained that the chart is a work in progress that could be revised as needed going forward. “This is a good starting point,” he said. “This is not supposed to be in place for a decade.”
After hearing these and numerous other concerns, the State Board gave the California Department of Education the green light to move ahead with the new system and come back with an updated design for its approval.
California Department of Education staff now have until the board’s next meeting on Sept. 8 to respond to the concerns raised at the meeting as best they can.
An editorial in the Los Angeles Times this week expressed extreme doubts that it would be possible. “These charts are unadoptable,” the editorial read. “The board must start over and create a simpler, clearer, more rigorous way to measure achievement.”
The State Board is required by law (Assembly Bill 104) to approve a more comprehensive assessment system for schools and districts by Oct. 1. But it appears to have more flexibility as to when it needs to adopt a chart to display that system.
Former state schools chief Honig believes that despite its imperfections, what California is coming up with is far better than the one-dimensional system it has used in the past. Test scores, he said, serve merely as a “warning light” showing schools and districts that they may have a problem. But test scores don’t tell them what the underlying issues are that produce those scores.
“Test scores basically help start the conversation, but they don’t tell you what is going on,” he said. “We might not have a perfect measure yet, but at least we are putting it on the table, so people can start looking at whether they are doing a good job.”
Said Darling-Hammond in her speech to school board members, “This is something to be really proud of.”