Can 600-plus California districts narrow the achievement gap?

January 12, 2018

As part of the California School Dashboard, the state’s new school accountability system, 1 in 4 school districts will receive assistance from county offices of education and the state to help improve the performance of groups of students who have done particularly poorly on criteria set by the state.

But an EdSource analysis found that 561 additional districts are not targeted for formal state support, despite large and persistent achievement gaps between African-American, Latino and low-income students and white and Asian students in those districts.

Under the state’s rules for determining county help, those districts, serving several million students, will now face the challenge on their own of narrowing large academic disparities, as indicated by scores on standardized tests in math and English language arts.

In many places, those achievement gaps have persisted for decades and failed to narrow during 15 years of state- and federally dictated school reforms during the era of the No Child Left Behind Act. Now, many districts will proceed without an alternative system of strategies and effective supports in place to guide them.

Districts’ ability to figure out how to improve academic measures and other indicators of student achievement will serve as a fundamental test of local control, the principle underlying the state’s 4-year-old school finance law, the Local Control Funding Formula. The longer it takes to show tangible results, the louder will be the calls in the Legislature to reassert state control, tamper with the formula and demand stricter accountability.

“Coming out of 20 years of high-stakes testing, where districts have not thought through school improvement, this is a real shift,” said Janelle Scott, associate professor at UC Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education and African-American Studies Department. “It’s not clear districts are ready and prepared to think differently.”

“The dashboard data will be quite valuable for districts to address highest-need kids,” said Julie Marsh, associate professor at the Rossier School of Education at USC, who, with other researchers, have tracked how districts used resources under the funding formula. “But the state has never fully invested in district capacity — the knowledge, expertise and good working relationships you need for different outcomes. So it is not fair to expect immediate improvement.”

Orange and red trigger action

The dashboard debuted last spring. The second edition, released in December with another year of data, introduced new accountability requirements.

The dashboard offers a broad picture of performance by rating not only standardized test scores but also suspension and high school graduation rates and progress of English learners toward language proficiency. Next year, with the addition of indicators of chronic absenteeism and students’ readiness for college and careers, districts will likely have to address more low-performing groups.

Student performance on each indicator is ranked by color. The best rating for students is blue followed by green. Yellow indicates mid-level performance, while orange and red indicate poor performance, with red being the worst. All districts and schools receive colors for overall student performance, and also for performance by a dozen student groups, including homeless, foster and low-income students, English learners and eight racial and ethnic groups.

Every district must designate as a priority every student group rated red or orange in any indicator. Districts must highlight the low performance in their Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP, their annual planning document, and commit to making improvements.

For the first time, 228 districts will get diagnostic help from county offices of education, because at least one student group performed poorly in multiple areas. They will also be on the radar of a new state agency, the California Collaborative for Education Excellence. Districts whose student groups don’t improve in three out of four years will be subject to “intensive” assistance, an as-yet-to-be-defined heavier hand.

For the next few months, districts will do a data analysis to understand what caused low performance. District officials can choose to continue with their county offices or work with other districts or experts to determine next steps. They must include whatever actions they plan to take in their LCAPs. Other districts not chosen for help also theoretically can ask their county office for advice.

The 228 districts, or about 1 in 4 districts in the state, could tax counties’ capacity to provide help. But the list qualifying for assistance, though long, does not include hundreds of other districts with large academic achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups, and between low-income and wealthier students.

That’s because performance on test scores alone or any single indicator — no matter how low the performance — is not a trigger for county help under the rules that state law established. To qualify for county assistance, at least one student group in a district must also get a red ranking on another indicator — such as suspension rates or graduation rates.

Half of the 228 districts will get county help only for students with disabilities. Only 42 districts qualified for county assistance with one factor the academic performance of a racial or ethnic group. Of those, five districts qualified, in part, because of low test scores of their Latino students, while 27 will get such assistance based on the performance of African-American students. A mere dozen qualify based on the performance of their low-income students.

These numbers are small compared with the 561 districts in which at least one racial ethnic or racial subgroup received an orange or red rating for performance on math or English language arts tests but did not qualify for county assistance. These include 480 districts with low-performing Latino students and 192 districts with low-performing African-American students. A total of 800 K-8 and unified school districts had the minimum number of students required to receive a color ranking for test scores.

The colors of disparity

A state analysis of dashboard colors for math and English language arts tests that students took last spring (see pages 2 and 4) presents a stark picture of the academic achievement gap for schools and districts. The analysis includes charter schools. Here are the results for math:

Here are the results for English language arts:

The color indicators for math and English language arts scores apply only to grades 3 to 8. Performance by 11th-graders — the only high school students required to take the Smarter Balanced assessments — is a perplexing exception.

Data Source:California Department of Education; Chart by Yuxuan Xie

High school results are treated as one component of the college and career indicator that will be phased in by next year. As a result, district and school scores weren’t assigned colors for the 11th grade test results, so they won’t receive county help for that grade and they won’t fall under the LCAP requirement to address low test-score performance.

The state requirements for assisting poorly performing student groups apply only to districts, although the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires addressing the “persistently” lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, about 300 in California. They too will get help from county offices, although the state board has not yet selected them.

What’s next for districts

In coming months, districts will decide actions they will take on behalf of their lowest-performing students as they prepare their 2018-19 LCAPs. Some districts may form partnerships with other districts or turn to universities or consultants for help. Some districts will continue work they’ve been doing.

Clovis Unified responded to an orange ranking of its English learners by making their improvement a priority, said Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Debbie Parra. Among its actions, the district used state money it received from the funding formula intended for English learners to buy supplemental materials aligned to the state’s English Language Development standards. As a result of its efforts, student performance improved, and the rating for English learners jumped two colors, to green, in the latest dashboard.

But three other student groups — African-American students, students with disabilities and homeless students — received an orange rating in math in the latest dashboard. That will add urgency and increase visibility for parents when the district begins public engagement for the next LCAP, Parra said. Homeless students and students with disabilities also received an orange rating in English language arts.

A year ago, after analyzing performance data, the eight school districts in CORE, a district-led nonprofit that includes Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno, three of the state’s four largest unified districts, chose improving middle-school math performance for African-American and Latino students as a collective focus. CORE is receiving guidance from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Palo Alto.

Unlike CORE, though, many districts won’t know whom to turn to for help in figuring out how best to improve low performance, said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research organization affiliated with Stanford University, USC and UC Davis. “It’s really hard for a district to say, ‘We have a problem in middle grades English language arts, and X did a great job with this in district Y’; districts have no idea what is out there.”

The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is responsible for designing the system connecting the expertise, but that hasn’t happened yet, Plank said.

Stay tuned, said Joshua Daniels, the collaborative’s director of outreach and training. Within the next month, there will be more details about how a statewide system of support for districts might work ­— a topic at the Feb. 1 board meeting of the semi-autonomous state agency. The framework, he said, is still being worked out.

Brown proposes more funding

Meanwhile, more resources may be on the way via the state budget. Recognizing that both the collaborative and county offices of education require more money to meet districts’ needs, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday proposed $76 million in new funding for 2018-19.

County offices would get $70 million more, including $10 million to help regional special education planning agencies align funding with academic needs of students with disabilities. The collaborative would receive $6.5 million more to help to bolster counties’ expertise.

“As the accountability indicators evolve, we expect the range of issues and districts will continue to expand,” said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.

John Fensterwald covers education policy. You can tweet him @jfenster or email him; Daniel Willis is a data analyst for EdSource. You can tweet him @BayAreaData or email him at

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