The State Board of Education has been working for several years to develop a new accountability system based on the Local Control Funding Formula, which the Legislature and governor passed in 2013. In September, the state board will take an important step forward by establishing a new way to measure progress and identify problems in our schools and districts, giving parents, teachers and community members a better idea of what is happening at their schools.
Accountability systems serve multiple functions, including providing guidance to parents, highlighting schools’ strengths and diagnosing their weaknesses, and helping educators design and implement strategies to assist schools.
For 15 years, California evaluated schools and districts largely by looking at a single number that relied exclusively on test scores – the Academic Performance Index (API). This gave us a narrow view. A single number is not sufficient to evaluate an employee or buy a house. Similarly, we shouldn’t depend on just one indicator to understand school performance. Furthermore, the API said nothing about other essential components of a successful school such as high school graduation rates, attendance, suspension rates, career and college readiness, and English learner progress.
The new accountability and continuous improvement system the state board is considering will measure all of those areas. Showing school performance on multiple measures that impact student performance provides a more complete picture for parents and the public of the how schools are serving students. The new system will also focus attention on how student groups are faring in these areas, helping to identify achievement gaps and promoting efforts to improve equity.
In addition, all the data will be online, allowing parents, educators and the public to access a wealth of information, with the option of focusing on specific information they believe is most valuable. This data will make it easier for parents to hold their schools accountable for any problem areas.
The state board has heard directly from parent and student groups that support the current approach. They have pointed out that student report cards present information about multiple measures of student progress. They are confident that parents and the public will benefit from a more complete picture about how schools are doing.
Criticisms that the system will be too complicated to understand are premature. In September, the state board must resolve several important policy questions that arise from implementing a complex statute. Concluding now that the system is too complex would be no different than arguing that people would not be able to use a smart phone based on the engineering specifications when the device is still in development.
Decisions about how the information will be conveyed will not be made until January or February 2017, when the online system is launched, and will be informed by input from parents, students and educators. And the presentation of this information will continue to evolve based on user feedback.
At the September meeting, the state board will build on previous work to set the performance and improvement levels of six state indicators, including test scores, which will continue to be an important part of the system. By relying on trusted statewide data for these indicators, the new system will dramatically expand the areas in which comparisons can be made among districts, schools and student subgroups throughout the state.
The state board will also provide guidelines districts can use as they collect data for local indicators, including information that reflects parent engagement, implementation of the new academic standards, and the availability of quality educators, instructional materials and facilities. The system will enhance local control by giving districts the option of choosing additional indicators that work best for their students, their parents, their teachers and their communities.
The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Obama in December 2015, also requires states to hold schools accountable based on more than just test scores. The federal requirements are uncertain, however, as the federal government considers more than 20,000 public comments on proposed regulations published earlier this year. Consequently, the state board will forge ahead in building the state system, while maintaining the goal of aligning the two systems next year when it adopts a state plan for implementing ESSA.
A critical component of this system is helping districts pinpoint the areas where they need help. The Academic Performance Index gave us very little guidance in trying to help schools with low numbers because it did not identify specific areas where schools were falling short.
The new system is designed to foster the continuous improvement of all schools with three levels of support: general support for all schools, support for a subset of schools that are struggling on several measures that is focused on those areas of need, and intensive support for schools with persistent, significant problems.
Change is hard, especially when it involves 6.2 million students, 300,000 teachers, 10,000 schools, 1,100 districts, and an entirely new approach to accountability.
We ask for your patience, persistence, and participation in implementing, refining and continually updating this system. It will shine a light on a broad range of indicators, promote equity, and help all schools, districts, teachers, and parents achieve our common goal: helping students succeed in the 21st century.
Michael Kirst is President of the California State Board of Education and Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University.
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