Despite close parallels between California’s school reforms and those called for in the new federal law signed by President Barack Obama last December, California and the U.S. Department of Education appear to be on a collision course regarding the rating systems each wants to put in place to measure success or failure of the state’s schools.
Led by Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board of Education, California is moving away from a single index, score or number to rank schools and districts.
In its place, California is trying to create a system to assess school performance based on “multiple measures” to give a more three-dimensional view of how schools and students are doing.
However, in the draft regulations published by the U.S. Department of Education in the Federal Register on May 31 to implement the new Every Students Succeeds Act, states would be required to assign a “single rating” to each of their schools, even though the law itself does not call for it.
The department explained its reasoning as follows:
California has been moving in exactly the opposite direction.
There is now a 60-day comment period that will allow state officials and others to voice their opinions on the proposed regulations. If enacted, they raise the possibility that California could end up with two ways of ranking schools – one federal, one state. That would be a confusing outcome education leaders have been hoping to avoid.
Although it is not clear how it could be done, state leaders may well try to find a way to rank a school that would meet the proposed federal requirements and would also be consistent with their current efforts to move away from the single index approach. They could also oppose the proposed regulation, and hope it will be removed from the final version.
The State Board of Education declined to comment on the draft regulations, indicating that the board will look at them at their July meeting before responding publicly.
The issue reflects the deeper tensions of just how much control the federal government should have over state education policies in the post-No Child Left Behind era.
As a result of NCLB law, California put in place a highly prescriptive accountability system devised by Congress and President George W. Bush that conflicted in some key ways with California’s own accountability system.
Chris Ungar, the president of the California School Boards Association, said that his association supports the multiple measure approach adopted by the state. “Historically a single measure of accountability is just a snapshot in time, and has been used in a punitive manner. It is not an effective way to really help schools make the continuous improvement they need.”
“We are hopeful that the state board and the feds will come to some agreement,” he said, adding that “I don’t know what a compromise will look like.”
“I am hoping we will stick to the California way, which is not to develop a single rating,” said Carl Cohn, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a new state agency intended to provide support to school districts to improve student outcomes.
For most of the last 15 years, California had ranked its schools and districts with a single number using its Academic Performance Index. In theory that number could range from 200 to 1,000, but more typically would range from the high 600s to the low 900s. The target score the state set for schools was 800.
But the API, based largely on test scores, has been mothballed since the 2013-14 school year, as California began introducing standardized tests aligned with the Common Core, and is unlikely to see the light of day again.
Cohn recalled that in 1999 he was co-chair of the advisory committee charged with overseeing implementation of California’s Public Schools Accountability Act, which created the API. “We always thought we would not stick with a single rating and that in a couple of years we would pivot to multiple measures.” That plan was thwarted by the passage of NCLB in 2002.
“I personally am of the opinion that we are finally getting it right, and this is long overdue for California,” said Cohn.
Over the past year, State Board of Education members have pointed out that only 10 percent of California’s education budget comes from the federal government, and that California rather than Washington should be driving the state’s reform agenda. “How can we make sure the federal government conforms to what we want to do as well?” board member Sue Burr asked at a state board meeting earlier this year.
Gov. Brown’s K-12 budget message for the coming fiscal year stated that California’s new accountability system should consist of “a concise set of performance measures, rather than a single index.”
To that end, the state board has made it clear that it plans to implement a system that in addition to test scores includes suspension and graduation rates, along with harder-to-quantify measures of school climate and student preparedness for college and the workplace.
These measures reflect the eight “priority areas” set by the state as part of the Local Control Funding Formula championed by Brown.
State board President Michael Kirst has used the analogy of devising an accountability system similar to gauges on a car dashboard, each measuring different components of a car’s performance.
What is puzzling is that the new federal law and the draft regulations also call for states to rate school performance using multiple measures “based on academic outcomes, student progress, and school quality” – seemingly what California is introducing. In fact, the draft regulations stipulate that the single school rating be based on at least three indicators of school performance.
The draft regulations even acknowledge the drawbacks of a single-rating system.
“Many schools may excel on some indicators, and struggle on other indicators – information that could be hidden if only an aggregate rating were reported, or if performance levels were reported on some, but not all, of the indicators,” the draft regulations read.
But in explaining why it is calling for a single index, the U.S. Department of Education says “there is significant value in providing a summative rating for each school that considers the school’s level of performance across all of the indicators, and many States have already chosen to aggregate multiple measures into a single rating (e.g., A-F school grades, performance indices, accreditation systems) for state or federal accountability purposes.”
Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, said that he was broadly supportive of the draft regulations, because NCLB’s test-based accountability system had resulted in improved academic outcomes in some areas. For that reason, he said, the Department of Education is “on solid ground in terms of the research.” “Summative ratings for schools that convey some idea of how a school is doing does drive school performance upwards in meaningful ways,” he said.
However, UCLA professor emerita Eva Baker, the founding director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, said California should push back against the single rating regulation, for a number of reasons. “If a school gets one number or a C, it could be failing on several criteria, or succeeding on others, and that information can get lost or overlooked with a single measure,” she said. “The clearer you can be about the various categories in which you need to improve, the better off you are.”
The state board has considered the advantages and disadvantages of a school rating system based on a single number or grade vs. one consisting of multiple measures. In February 2015, for example, the California Department of Education noted that the advisory committee that oversaw the API since its inception opposed a single rating system for several reasons, including that such a system “requires complex calculations, including weights, to produce a single accountability index,” masks areas needing improvement and “fails to provide unique information about schools and districts.”
One outcome that education officials want to avoid, in addition to the confusion that could result from using two conflicting ways to measure school improvement, is the administrative costs of setting up two such systems. During all the years that No Child Left Behind was in effect, schools could be deemed to be succeeding under federal law while failing under state law, or vice versa.