State board unanimously adopts new school accountability system

September 8, 2016

Marking a monumental shift in philosophy and policy, the State Board of Education unanimously adopted a system Thursday for evaluating schools and districts using a variety of measures of school conditions and student achievement.

Standardized tests scores, the sole basis for judging schools in the past, will be a component of the new state system when it takes effect in the 2017-18 school year. But so will graduation and suspension rates, an indicator of college and career readiness, progress of English learners in becoming proficient in English, and, still in the early stages, measures of school climate and parent involvement.

The Legislature mandated that the state board pay attention to these and other priorities when it passed a new formula for funding schools three years ago. And, consistent with distributing more money to low-income students and English learners, it told the state board that underperformance of student subgroups should determine which school districts receive technical assistance and more intensive intervention. On Thursday, the board also adopted the first performance expectations, such as high levels of student suspensions and low rates of graduation, that will trigger assistance for districts.

The new accountability reports will cover all schools, districts and charter schools. However, state law mandates assistance only for districts. The new federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires that states intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, based on a subset of primarily academic measures. The state board will develop its compliance plan over the next six months.

The evaluation rubrics, as the new state accountability tool is called, will be fully developed over the next year. It will consist of several elements: a one-page dashboard displaying how well districts, schools and student subgroups rate on each state and local performance indicator; more detailed data explaining performance over time and for the most recent year; and statements of model practices that can guide school and district improvement.

Source: California Department of Education

This is a recent draft of first-page display showing how a hypothetical school district would perform under the new accountability system. It lists all seven state indicators, for which statewide data is collected, and four local indicators. Five colors, from red to blue, designate performance. The second and third columns show the number of subgroups in the district that are large enough to be rated, and the number of those subgroups with the lowest ratings (orange and red) potentially qualifying for assistance or intervention. Critics favor an overall ranking that combines all of the individual ratings. They say it would offer simplicity and clarity while enabling comparisons with other schools and districts. Advocates of the more complex display say details matter when it comes to selecting or improving a school.

Over the past two years, during dozens of hours of public testimony, student activists and hundreds of parents, many using translators, implored the board to make school climate a priority and to hold schools accountable for engaging parents. Student advocacy groups urged the board to use the new system as a prod to narrow achievement gaps. Business groups suggested ways to develop a robust career and college readiness metric.

The more than 100 individuals who spoke Thursday reiterated those themes. But many prefaced their one-minute remarks by praising board members for taking their comments seriously and incorporating their ideas. The overall framework, they said, is solid.

“We commend board and staff for monumental progress,” said Estelle Lemieux, a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association. “The evaluation rubrics should provide the foundation for dealing with the whole child,” leading to more equitable treatment of students and improved results, she said.

“Stay the course,” said Wesley Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, calling the new accountability system “a model for students across America.”

Technical and fundamental disagreements remain, however. The biggest is over how to present the performance level ratings. While the final design is months away, the board is leaning toward designating each indicator’s performance by color, without prioritizing measures or summarizing a school’s performance.

Parents on Thursday said they needed a simpler way to compare schools and understand how their schools are doing overall.

Christine Chu, a 3rd-grade teacher in Los Angeles Unified, said the board can display all of the individual ratings and also create a summary that shows differences in school performance. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Carol Hedgspeth, director of research and policy for Innovate Public Schools in San Jose, called for a more transparent and parent-accessible display, with more emphasis on academic measures.

Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber after her testimony to the State Board of Education on Thursday.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, the only legislator to testify Thursday, agreed. “Even recognizing that some progress has occurred regarding multiple measures, I do believe that the accountability system needs to significantly focus on academic achievement, academic growth, and closing achievement gaps,” she said, adding that Assembly Bill 2548, a bill she sponsored that’s now before Gov. Jerry Brown, would require it.

Board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon, while praising the progress that the board made to get to this point, said she too was disappointed that the system would not demand an acceleration of achievement for English learners, African-American and Hispanic students. It’s not good enough for all groups to progress modestly in parallel, she said.

But board member Sue Burr said state laws underwriting the board’s work are clear: Student subgroups that fail to improve in more than one priority will get gradually more intensive help, starting with county offices of education, leading to the involvement of a new state agency, the Collaborative for Educational Excellence, and ultimately to intervention by the state superintendent of public instruction.

“We take our responsibility seriously,” she said of the board, and will apply pressure on those charged with monitoring school districts.

State board President Michael Kirst, who has guided the development of the new system, cautioned that an accountability system alone cannot move schools to improve. A new state agency won’t be a “magician” that raises the state’s low test scores in math, he said. “We have never talked on this board about strategy for building capacity” in schools and districts. “The board at some point must move from back end of accountability to front end of capacity. Our agenda has been unbalanced.”

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