After a couple of years of planning and a trial run last spring, the state on Thursday released the California School Dashboard, displaying a multi-color system for grading the performance of schools, school districts and charter schools on a variety of measurements.

The website offers an overview of performance and detailed information on a range of indicators of school climate and conditions, success in preparing students for college and career opportunities and achievement on standardized tests — all broken down by a dozen student groups, including low-income students, English learners, students with disabilities and other racial and ethnic groups, to highlight disparities in achievement.

What follows is an explanation of what to look for on the dashboard and the reasoning behind it.  The dashboard itself also gives a useful, quick guide.

What’s the purpose of the dashboard?

The dashboard offers a more comprehensive and nuanced look at a school than the previous system, the Academic Performance Index, that ranked schools by test scores. The dashboard was designed for several audiences, which is why many parents may find it confusing and complicated, while others may find it useful.

Parents who want a single school ranking, grade or color or easy, at-a-glance narrative summing up performance won’t find it on the dashboard. But they will see a color rating for each performance indicator, like test scores or suspension rates. If they click for a subgroup report, they’ll see the breakdown on how each student group in a school or district did.

For parents, community activists, teachers and school board members involved in determining goals and spending priorities for a district’s annual Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP, the dashboard offers detailed information on whether performance on each indicator is progressing — or not. Understand the data underlying the colors will require time and effort.

For state leaders, dashboard performance determines which low-performing schools and districts need assistance and, if they fail to improve over the next four years, stronger intervention.

What do the colors mean?

Schools and districts receive one of five colors corresponding to a performance level. From highest to lowest levels, they are blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Performance levels are also indicated by the number of slices in a pie. They’re needed for people who are color-blind or use a black and white printer. The number of slices correspond to a color, ranging from a full pie for blue to one slice for red.

How are colors determined?

The state board wanted to credit schools and districts that improved and draw attention to results that have declined. A color combines both the most recent year’s results and its change over time. The goal for a school or district is to get at least to green. For the Smarter Balanced tests, that corresponds to the point on a scale designating Level 3, where students performed at standard. How far above or below that point partly determines the color. The other factor is whether your school’s  score went up or down compared with the previous year or a 3-year average for graduation rates. For example, a green school whose score dropped significantly would be yellow instead. If the score rose a lot, it would be rated blue, the top color, recognizing their effort.

What are the dashboard indicators?

In writing the Local Control Funding Formula, the Legislature wanted schools and districts to take a comprehensive look at school life and achievement. Lawmakers set eight priorities, including academic achievement, school climate, parent involvement, student engagement, access to courses and basic conditions in a schools. The law also suggested measurements or indicators for each priority. Some, like test scores, can be compared across districts and are statewide indicators, while others are locally determined, such as what questions to ask in a school climate survey for parents and students.

For the latest version of the dashboard, there are six statewide indicators:

  • Test results on the Smarter Balanced tests in English language arts and math
  • English Learners’ progress in learning English
  • Graduation rates
  • Suspension rates
  • Chronic absenteeism rates
  • A measure of career/college readiness

Because there is only one year of data for chronic absenteeism and college/career readiness, those indicators won’t be assigned a color and used for accountability purposes until fall 2018.

What should I look for on the state dashboard site?

The dashboard offers four reports, each of which links to more information. Typing in a name of a school or district on the home page takes you to the “Equity Report.” It shows the colors for all students for each statewide indicator, along with the number of student groups with enough students for reporting purposes and the number of student groups that are red or orange.

Clicking on any of the indicators, such as grad rates, will take you to the “Status and Change” report that gives color level for each student group for the indicator. The last two data-heavy columns give the performance data for status and change that produced the color. Before throwing up your hands, go to the state’s explainer guide on how each indicator is scored.

The Student Group Report shows a chart of how every student group did on every state indicator, by color. It’s easier to understand.

The Detailed Report provides what it says: additional performance and demographic information.

One more note: Chronic absenteeism and the Career/College readiness indicators have only one year of data, so they won’t get a color until next year.  That’s why the indicators say NA, not available. Though not intuitively clear,  you can get last year’s data by  clicking on the indicator. The link leads to chronic absenteeism results on DataQuest. For college and career readiness data, go to detailed report for any school or district; the indicator is still being developed. The detailed report is also where you will also find a summary of the 11th grade Smarter Balanced tests, one of the metrics for the college and career indicator. For more details on the test scores, you also have to go to DataQuest.

Who gets state and county assistance?

This year, 228 districts with the lowest-performing student groups on the dashboard will get help, initially in the form of a data analysis by county offices of education. The State Board of Education has yet to designate the lowest-performing 300 schools for help in 2018-19, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, using somewhat different dashboard criteria.

What determines district assistance?

School districts where at least one student group scores in red in at least two indicators will get what is called “differentiated assistance” (see accompanying story). An example is a K-12 district whose students with disabilities scored red in suspension rates and graduation rates.

The test score indicator works this way: Either two reds, in math and English scores, or a combination of one test in red and one in orange count for potential assistance. The student group would still need another red indicator to get help.

Just because a district isn’t singled out for help doesn’t mean it’s performing well. In hundreds of  districts, student groups were rated red in math and English language arts or another indicator. Districts must highlight these results and other big disparities in achievement in their LCAPs and describe what they plan to do about it.

And what if districts don’t improve?

The 2013 funding law lays out stringent provisions for state intervention for poor performance, so a state takeover will probably be rare. It says that the state superintendent can intervene if a district fails to move out of red in three out of four consecutive years for three or more student groups in more than one state or local priority area. However, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence can also recommend state intervention if a school district has been unable or unwilling to carry out the agency’s recommendations to improve, and  persistently poor academic performance alone, regardless of other indicators, warrants  intervention.

Can I compare schools?

Not easily using the California School Dashboard. You have to look up each school or district one at a time. You’ll have better luck with EdSource’s database. It has a custom comparison tool that lets you compare schools’ performances for all students on all indicators — but not for individual subgroups.

Though the state doesn’t promote it, there is a site separate from the California School Dashboard that does allow you to compare schools within a district. They’re called the “5 by 5 placement reports,” which you can find here. Using a drop-down menu to choose a district and an indicator, you’ll see a 25-box grid, by color, listing schools that fall within each box. The horizontal and vertical axis reveals how the schools scored and whether they improved or declined from the previous year. Those intersections of the ranges produce a box, and show how colors are determined. That information is very useful for those who want to understand how the system works.

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