California’s State Board of Education is a signature away from finally complying with the nation’s main education law for public schools, ending a year of protracted disagreement between Sacramento and Washington.
But while moving forward on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the board also voted on Wednesday to further study how the state determines whether its students are improving based on standardized tests. Advocates for a method that measures a school’s impact on how much students are learning, a so-called growth model, say it will be more precise than what the state does now to track students’ improvement on those tests.
The state board is confident that the 148-page third version of its plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act will win approval from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The law, which provides the bulk of federal funding for low-income schools, requires that states improve their lowest-performing low-income schools in exchange for aid: about $2.4 billion for California in 2018-19.
In a letter last month, Jason Botel, the chief federal administrator overseeing negotiations with California, said he’d recommend that DeVos approve it if California makes the last remaining fixes he and state officials agreed to. The state board unanimously and quickly did that Wednesday. DeVos is expected to decide within a month.
California is one of only three states whose plans haven’t been approved, and a further delay could jeopardize receiving federal money in the fall. While funding from the Every Student Succeeds Act makes up only about 2.5 percent of California’s K-12 spending, it’s also been a reliable source of money for after-school programs, teacher training and migrant student aid, along with funding for low-income students.
In passing the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 to replace the much-criticized No Child Left Behind Act, Congress gave states greater flexibility to decide how to improve achievement of low-scoring ethnic and racial groups, low-income students and English learners and to focus attention on states’ lowest-scoring schools.
But the state board stretched the limits of the law by insisting that California take the same approach to identifying schools under the new federal law as it’s already doing with districts under state law. With a multi-colored dashboard, the state rates schools and districts on multiple indicators beside test scores, including students’ suspension rates, their readiness for college and careers and, starting this fall, chronic absenteeism.
Much of the sparring between the state and federal officials was over how to mesh the two systems and set clear measures of progress. Board member Ting Sun acknowledged “bumps along the way,” but said the final state plan preserved the uniform approach the board had sought.
The state’s version of the dashboard this fall will identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of low-income schools — about 400 schools statewide. Districts will receive about $350,000 in federal Title I funding for each of those schools. However, the state board has not yet said what actions districts must take to show how they’ll improve the lowest-performing schools as well as the lowest-performing student groups in all low-income schools. It will hold hearings this fall to get the public’s ideas.
School districts will have three years to raise achievement of the lowest performing schools. The state will be required to step in with more intensive assistance for schools that fail to do better.
More study of growth model
The board voted unanimously Wednesday to continue exploring a growth model for tracking students’ academic improvement that advocates say will be more precise than what the state does now.
But some members of the board were skeptical.
“We have been searching for the Holy Grail for many, many years in California,” said board member Sue Burr, who previously served as a policy adviser for Gov. Jerry Brown. “We may be wishing for something that doesn’t exist.”
She also took issue with “the tenor” of the argument in favor of a growth model. “They seem to be kind of accusatory, that we were not going to try to move forward, which is absolutely not the case.”
Currently the state publicly shares how students are progressing by comparing the most recent standardized test scores to the scores of students who took the test the previous year. That information is posted on the California School Dashboard.
But that approach doesn’t tell the public whether schools are actually having an impact on student learning, a letter to the board from growth model advocates said.
Critics of the state’s approach say it measures just the students enrolled at a school, rather than keeping track of individual students’ records every year. A school’s student population can change dramatically over time. Students can move to different schools year to year or a neighborhood can become wealthier or poorer and the school’s students reflect those new social changes.
The letter gave the example of two schools with low average student test scores. A growth model, it said, would tell the public whether one of those schools had a student population that started much further behind but is making fast progress toward getting students to understand math and English concepts.
A written summary by the California Department of Education said that the growth model being considered has its own deficiencies. It doesn’t tell the public how much progress a school needs to make so that more of its students reach a grade-level understanding of math and English concepts, the summary said.
The board’s vote also included language to consider different kinds of growth models as it explores alternatives to measuring student progress.
Board member Patricia Ann Rucker said the emphasis should be more on finding an approach that helps schools increase how much students know and learn.
“The most important goal is to figure out how to close the achievement gap,” she said. “What are we expecting schools to do with that data?”
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