Brown says it’s time to abandon API to judge schools’ performance

January 11, 2016

Gov. Jerry Brown

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Members of the State Board of Education who favor replacing the three-digit Academic Performance Index with a “dashboard” of measurements highlighting school performance can count on the backing of Gov. Jerry Brown.

The K-12 summary (pages 22-23) of Brown’s proposed 2016-17 state budget, released last week, stated, “The state system should include a concise set of performance measures, rather than a single index.” Brown said the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act creates the opportunity to design a “more accurate picture of school performance and progress” than in the past.

But whether the state should or even can switch, under the new federal law, from a single index like the API to a more complex school improvement system will be a potentially contentious issue this year. Both approaches to accountability, the dashboard with multiple measures – such as test scores, high school graduation rates and an indicator of student readiness for college and jobs – and a single index compiled from a mix of factors, have strong advocates.

The state board is in the process of drafting a new school accountability system and will continue the debate at its meeting on Wednesday (see agenda, Items 1 and 2). A state consultant, attorney Julia Martin, will outline how the state board may have to tailor its concept of school improvement to meet the requirements of the new federal law, which Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed last month as the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act.

The API rates schools and districts on a scale of 200 to 1,000, based on standardized test results. The Legislature established it in 1999. But with the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula and the transition to the Common Core standards in English language arts and math, accompanied by a new set of state tests, the state board suspended calculating the API two years ago. While the board hasn’t yet voted of get rid of it, members, led by President Michael Kirst, appear inclined to.

The Local Control Funding Formula, the school funding and accountability law that Brown proposed and the Legislature adopted in 2013, calls for a broader measure of school performance than the API, at least as currently constructed using test results. The funding law set eight priorities for school districts. They include student achievement, implementation of academic standards like the Common Core, parent involvement, student engagement and preparation for college and careers. The API is one of two dozen metrics that the law says districts must use as yardsticks of improvement. Test scores would continue to be a key measure in a new accountability system but not, Brown suggests, through the API.

Which metrics to use?

The state board’s challenge is to decide which of the many metrics in the funding law should be used in a statewide accountability system that will determine the schools and districts that need targeted assistance and the chronically poorly performing schools that require intervention. Examples of limited assistance might be helping schools better solicit parents’ ideas or reducing suspension rates for a subgroup of students.

Kirst, board member Sue Burr and the state board’s executive director, Karen Stapf Walters, advise Brown on education issues, so it’s not surprising that the governor would endorse the board’s basic approach to school improvement. But Kirst said Brown’s statement in the budget, recommending a “concise” number of metrics, provides new guidance to the board. And the governor has made clear his view of the API, he said.

Kirst argues that boiling down achievement into an API number diverts attention from the key components – graduation and attendance rates or percentage of students admitted to college without need for remediation – that might comprise the future dashboard. But others counter that the API provides parents with a simple comparison of schools’ performance that they can use when deciding where to enroll their children.

A school list without an index?

How the new federal law is interpreted could decide the issue. The law is generally in sync with California’s approach to school accountability in requiring that states adopt multiple measures of performance: high school graduation rates, measures of English learners’ proficiency in English, test scores on standardized tests in math, English language arts and science, plus one other non-test measure of student achievement that states can choose.

But the federal law also requires that every three years states identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools – about 500 schools in California – and monitor plans for improvement. The Every Student Succeeds Act doesn’t mandate using an index to rank the worst schools, but California will find it challenging to create a list without an index, said Christopher Cross, an education consultant from Danville who served as an assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. “It will be a tough road for California with regard to the 5 percent, and I don’t know how they can do it (without creating an index) in a way that is acceptable to the federal government and parents, too,” he said. “The creation of an index can factor in other measures, but in the final analysis it needs to lead to the identity of those schools that require extra supports.”

Brown has criticized judging a school on test scores alone. In 2011, he vetoed a bill that would have expanded the API to include multiple indicators. Calling it a “siren song of reform,” he wrote in his veto message, “Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.” A year later, he did sign SB 1458, a simplified version of the bill that calls for expanding the API to include factors other than test scores for at least 40 percent of a school’s score.

The latest statement reflects a further change in Brown’s thinking. And he said in the budget summary that his administration would support removing “outdated accountability components.”

But the API is interwoven in dozens of laws on the books, like SB 1458, and programs whose supporters will be wary of changes. An example is the Open Enrollment Act, a 5-year-old underutilized law that requires the state annually to list the lowest-achieving 1,000 schools based on API scores. The law allows parents of children in those schools to transfer to better-performing schools in other districts that make spots available; few districts, however, have done so. Threatened with a lawsuit, the state Department of Education last month reluctantly reposted the list of schools from 2012-13, the last year of the API, with the caveat that parents should be wary of using an old list.

That is not a solution, said Bill Lucia, president of the education advocacy group EdVoice. The Open Enrollment Act remains the law and the school list must be updated this year to avoid litigation, he said last week.

Others, too, with an interest in the API will be closely watching the transition to a new school improvement system, and the ramifications of changing or abandoning the index.

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