School, parent groups urge state board to give more weight to high school tests

March 2, 2017

A student works in the library at Skyline High School in Oakland.

Not taking “no” for a final answer, a broad coalition of parent, student and teacher advocacy groups is asking the State Board of Education to place more emphasis on high school test results than the board intends for the new California district and school report cards it’s creating.

What the groups are asking – shifting the test scores on 11th-grade English language arts and math tests from one section of the California School Dashboard, as the new state accountability report is called, to another section – might appear a minor, technical matter. But the 30 groups are arguing that the board, in effect, is burying the most prominent measure that parents rely on to judge how well high schools are teaching – and students are learning – core academic content.

“California State PTA recently shared the new school dashboard with parents in recent webinars,” Justine Fischer, president of the state PTA, wrote to EdSource. “The lack of a high school academic measure was repeatedly raised as an area of concern. We expect that parent and community groups across the state will have a similar reaction during the rollout of this first iteration of the rubric.” The state PTA signed the letter.

Later this month, the California Department of Education will publish a new website with a pilot version of the dashboard. It will provide data for every school and district on measures that will include high school graduation and suspension rates, the progress of English learners toward proficiency, and English and math test scores. Those metrics and other data will measure school climate, parent involvement, student engagement, student readiness for college and careers, and academic achievement.

Test scores for grades 3-8 on the Smarter Balanced tests, which are based on the Common Core standards, are the main element measuring academic performance for those grades. A summary of separate results in English language arts and math will be prominently displayed on the overview of the dashboard, with schools, districts and various subgroups of students graded in one of five colors, from red, designating poor performance that has gotten worse, to blue, designating excellent achievement or a good performance that has improved. A link will lead to a more detailed explanation of the latest scores and improvement or decline over time. Test scores were also the primary way of evaluating a school under the former school accountability system, the Academic Performance Index.

The Smarter Balanced test is given only once in high school, in the 11th grade. But rather than include that grade’s results in the academic performance section of the dashboard overview, the state board decided to fold scores into the overall career and college readiness indicator, which will debut this fall in an update of the dashboard. The 11th-grade tests will be one of a half-dozen elements making up the indicator. They will include Advanced Placement passage rates, completion of A-G coursework for admission to the California State University and the University of California, concurrent enrollment in community college courses while in high school, completion of career pathway programs and possibly other metrics. Parents won’t see a summary of the 11th-grade test scores on the overview page; they’ll have to click to it.

Not enough visibility

In a Feb. 17 letter to the state board, the groups ask the board to reconsider its decision. Including 11th-grade test results only in the career and college indicator will minimize the scores in two ways, they say. The scores will receive less visibility and attention because they will be one of many elements. And the scores will be used narrowly: to measure the percentage of students who scored high enough to be considered ready for CSU or conditionally ready as long as they take an additional math or writing course as seniors. By looking at test scores in that limited way, the groups say, districts and schools won’t be held accountable for the low achievement of struggling students. If included with the test results of grades 3 to 8 in the academic indicator, the 11th-grade scores would receive a more extensive analysis, and districts would be required specifically to address the lack of progress of low-achieving students, the letter says.

“We are encouraged that the state has moved away from the exclusive focus on academic outcomes, but stakeholders still value student academic achievement as a core component of multiple measures of school quality and to ensure equity and believe it is important to more effectively highlight it in the system,” the letter said.

Along with the PTA, the groups include the California School Boards Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Charter Schools Association, California Alliance of African American Educators; advocacy groups Children Now, Education Trust–West, Parent Revolution and the ACLU of California; and Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence, two Los Angeles-based organizations of teachers. The state’s two teachers unions did not sign the letter.

The groups had hoped the state board would put their request on the agenda for its meeting next week. That didn’t happen, but they will raise the issue anyway and request that the board reconsider its decision at a future meeting.

David Sapp, deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the state board, said that after an extensive discussion, board members decided that the 11th-grade scores were an essential component in the college and career readiness model. Members were concerned about the potential impact of double-counting the 11th-grade test results if they were also included in the academic indicator.

The groups’ letter did not advocate including the 11th-grade test scores in two indicators, but Samantha Tran, senior managing director of Children Now, said her organization favors doing that. The 11th-grade tests would serve distinctly different purposes in both, she said.

While acknowledging “a fair concern,” Sapp also said the groups should wait until viewing the latest version of the dashboard before concluding that the 11th-grade results would not be visible enough. He said the same methodology will be used to measure schools’ and districts’ performance on the 11th-grade tests as with grades 3-8, although performance levels on the 11th grade tests will not be color-coded.** The data will be one click away from the main dashboard page, he said.

** A earlier version of the story mistakenly said there would be color-coded 11th grade results.

This is what the summary page of what the new school dashboard may look like when it’s released later this month. It will feature metrics for which there is statewide data. A school or district’s 3rd-to-8th-grade English Language Arts and Math test scores will be summarized as a pie with one of five colors (green, the second highest rank for overall performance, for English language arts and yellow, the middle ranking, for math in this hypothetical report card). Since the 11th-grade tests will be folded into the College & Career indicator, its scores will not be color-coded and will not appear on the overview page. It will be available through a link. The College & Career indicator will make its first appearance next fall, which is why it is listed, for now, as Not Applicable.

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