State board poised to take new direction in school accountability

September 5, 2016

After months of drafting, revising and debating how best to measure and improve schools, the State Board of Education this week will adopt key elements of a new and distinct school accountability system.

The series of votes on Thursday will meet the Legislature’s Oct. 1 deadline and will mark 2½ years since the state board suspended its simpler predecessor, the Academic Performance Index. The board expects to change components of the system in coming years.

The new system shifts from a one-dimensional school rating under the API and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, based on test scores, toward a broader picture of what constitutes a quality education. It combines measures of underlying conditions, ­such as teacher qualifications and student suspension rates, and academic outcomes, including gauges of college and career readiness and standardized test scores.

A multi-dimensional system that includes some hard-to-quantify measures like school climate is, by nature, complex, and some parent groups and advocates of  test-score focused accountability are urging the adoption of a summative ranking, like the API’s numerical rating, that is understandable at a glance.

“As parents and community leaders throughout California, we call on our public officials to give families a clearer school rating system that includes an overall assessment of school quality in addition to the currently proposed multiple measures,” reads a petition that the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Families in Schools is circulating.

The staff of the state board is wrestling with how to display on a one-page report card multiple measures of performance that include an “equity report” with results of subgroups of students. Stung by criticisms of early drafts, the board has farmed out the design to the consulting agency WestEd. A new online display won’t be ready until January.

But unless the federal government forces states to adopt a single rating, the board will use a dashboard of data. The board believes that will better enable the public to understand their schools and hold them accountable. And it will highlight achievement gaps that a single rating would gloss over. “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,” board President Michael Kirst wrote in an EdSource commentary last week.

With multiple measures, the board is following the Legislature’s orders. In the Local Control Funding Formula, legislators set eight priorities that school districts must address. They include implementing academic standards, involving parents in school decisions, creating an engaging school climate and raising student achievement. The Legislature left it up to the board to figure out how to measure progress in all eight priorities, and determine which low-performing districts need help.

That’s the overview. Here are some details; additional information can be found in the board’s agenda.

What will the board adopt on Thursday?

Called evaluation rubrics, it’s an accountability tool with several components:

What are the state indicators?

The board chose six indicators for which there is or will be reliable statewide data for districts and schools.

The board will also explore adopting a high school readiness indicator.

How will rankings work with state indicators?

California State Board of Education

The proposed benchmarks for the high school graduation rate indicator show the interplay between the current year’s performance, listed vertically, and the improvement or decline over the past three years. A high school that graduated between 85 and 90 percent of its students in the latest year, in the middle level, could be rated orange (the second lowest ranking) or green (second highest), depending on how much it improved or slipped over the past three years. High schools or districts that rank red would receive technical assistance.

A school or district’s rating on each indicator will be based 50 percent on how well they performed in the latest year’s results and 50 percent on how performance has grown or declined over three or more years. A district’s or school’s performance will fall within one of five levels (see example ). A matrix combining current results and growth will produce a ranking by color, from red for the worst performers to blue for the best.

What are the local indicators?

The board has selected four local indicators, corresponding to priorities under the funding formula for which statewide data is either not yet collected or hard to quantify. They will apply primarily to districts:

Though they are harder to measure, local indicators will count just as much in determining which districts qualify for state or county assistance or intervention. Instead of a complicated matrix, districts would be rated whether they met, didn’t meet or didn’t meet for two or more years performance expectations. Districts could conduct self-assessments or use guidelines for measuring parent engagement and other indicators that the board will develop.

Which low-performing districts would get help?

Districts and schools will qualify differently. The Local Control Funding Formula only requires assisting districts; it is silent about schools.

The funding formula says that a district will receive technical assistance if one or more student subgroups perform poorly in more than one state priority. Technical assistance could involve bringing in an outside expert. In a letter to the state board last week, a coalition of two-dozen student advocacy organizations called on the board to be more specific about what technical assistance would look like, who would provide it and when.

A district will get more intensive intervention — something state leaders predict will be rare — if it fails to improve in multiple state or local priorities for three or more student subgroups in multiple years. Intervention might involve assigning a trustee to run the district or ordering a change in the district budget.

A combination of red rankings on state indicators and “did not meet” under local indicators will determine which districts get which form of assistance. The state board hasn’t disclosed estimates of how many districts that would be.

Which low-performing schools would get help?

The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act mandates that states provide assistance for their lowest-performing 5 percent of charter and district schools — about 600 in California. But there are signs of conflict over how much weight test scores would have, and whether the state would, against its will, have to create a summary rating like the API. The state board has until March 2017 to submit its state plan. Its first draft will be discussed at the November meeting.

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