Over the last decade, California adopted a range of landmark reforms to hold schools — and students — accountable for improving academic performance. These included administering new standardized tests aligned with the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards, requiring schools to draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan, setting new priorities for measuring success and creating the California School Dashboard. But the coronavirus pandemic has upended this painstakingly instituted accountability system. This guide outlines where things stand in California. Find more EdSource Quick Guides here.
Q: Will California schools be required to administer annual state standardized tests?
A: Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a March 18 emergency order suspending standardized testing for 2019-20, meaning students in grades three to eight and 11 were not required to take Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts, the California Science Test or the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) for English learners this spring. On March 27, the U.S. Department of Education gave the state temporary approval to waive standardized testing for this school year. It remains to be seen whether testing will also be suspended for 2020-21. The California Department of Education is regularly updating its Frequently Asked Questions webpage related to assessment.
Q: Will English learners’ language skills still be assessed, and how will districts determine students’ eligibility to be reclassified as English-proficient?
A: English learners take an annual test that assesses their progress in learning English. This test, known as the Summative ELPAC, is normally given in the spring, but the 2019-20 test was suspended when schools closed in the spring. However, the state has extended the testing window so that schools and districts can optionally choose to administer it through October 2020. The results of this assessment may be used only to make determinations about whether students should be reclassified as English-proficient.
Emergency legislation signed by Gov. Newsom in March 2020 (Senate Bill 117) offered school districts a 45-day extension for administration of the Initial ELPAC — which is the first version of the English language fluency test students take when they initially enroll in a California school. This typically happens in the fall but also applies to students who enroll mid-year. While districts must normally administer the test within 30 days of a student’s enrollment, they were given a total of 75 days for 2019-20. This gave districts more time to assess students who enrolled shortly before school closures began. The 45-day extension expired at the end of the 2019-20 school year. Students who had still not taken the initial assessment by the end of 2019-20 will be assessed when they return to school in 2020-21.
Q: Are districts still required to adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) for 2020-21?
A: No, SB 98 says that Local Education Agencies — including school districts, county offices of education and charter schools — are not required to adopt an LCAP or annual update to the LCAP for the 2020-21 school year. This June 29 legislation replaces an April 22 emergency order from Gov. Newsom that delayed the 2020-21 Local Control and Accountability Plan deadline from June 30th to December 15. Instead, the state introduced two new reports.
First, each district, county offices of education and charter school was required to adopt, by July 1, a “Covid-19 Written Report” to the community explaining changes they made in response to school closures prompted by the Covid-19 emergency and how students and families have been impacted. These reports were to include a description of how schools and districts have been meeting the needs of low-income students, English learners and students in foster care.
Second, the state is requiring each district, county office and charter school to adopt a learning continuity and attendance plan by September 30, 2020. (See the next Q&A item for more about these.)
Additionally, the state is continuing to require that districts adopt the Local Control Funding Formula budget overview for parents, but the date for this has been pushed back from July 1 to December 15, 2020.
Districts will be expected to resume the three-year LCAP cycle in June 2021, using the template and expenditure tables adopted by the State Board of Education just this January.
Despite the changes to the LCAP timeline, Local Control Funding Formula spending requirements still apply. Importantly, districts continue to receive supplemental and concentration grant funds as they have in the past, and they are still required to spend those funds to support the needs of low-income students, English learners, and foster and homeless youth.
Q: What are the requirements of the state’s new learning continuity and attendance plans?
A: Every district, county office and charter school must adopt a learning continuity and attendance plan by September 30, 2020. The CDE is charged with developing and adopting a template for these plans by August 1.
These plans, which must be developed in consultation with stakeholders in a process similar to the one used for the LCAP, will describe how the district intends to provide instruction and support to students through 2020-21. In particular, the plans must describe details of the district’s in-person instructional offerings and distance learning program. It must describe the steps the district will take to address learning loss and how these strategies will be different for low-income students, English learners and foster youth. Additionally, the plan must address how the district will support students’ mental health and social and emotional well-being and how it will engage students who have been absent from distance learning. The plans must also include a description of how the district is increasing and improving services for low-income students, English learners and foster youth using LCFF supplemental and concentration dollars and should account for federal learning loss mitigation funds.
Q: Are California schools and districts still required to convene School Site Councils and other school committees like English Learner Advisory Committees?
A: Yes, but they may meet virtually. A March 12 emergency order signed by Governor Newsom authorized local governments to hold public meetings via teleconference rather than in person. This flexibility extends to school site councils and English learner advisory committees that meet under California’s Greene Act, which is a set of rules that ensure that school and district site council and English learner committee meetings are open.
Q: How will schools be identified for improvement next year? What happens to schools that are already receiving assistance?
A: Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act California has identified 1,819 schools whose students are among the lowest-performing in the state either overall or for specific student groups. These schools must have improvement plans and, in some cases, their districts receive additional federal funds to support improvement activities.
In approving California’s waiver request, the U.S. Department of Education wrote that California must ensure that schools identified for improvement in 2019-20 will keep that status in 2020-21 and will continue to receive supports and adhere to their improvement plans. This means that the state’s list of low-performing schools will remain the same for another year.
Schools that had improvement plans in 2019-20 are being asked to continue their improvement activities as much as is reasonable, practicable or necessary. Schools that were identified for assistance in January 2020 are being asked to develop new plans for the 2020-21 year in partnership with stakeholders. The CDE is still working to develop an adjusted implementation timeline but it is currently suggesting that implementation of those new plans begins in December 2020 or January 2021.
Q: How will school districts be identified for improvement?
A: In addition to annually identifying school sites that need support and intervention, California normally identifies Local Education Agencies — districts, county offices of education and charter schools — that need assistance. However, SB 98 prohibits the CDE from identifying new LEAs, for this “Differentiated Assistance” in 2020-21. LEAs will continue to receive assistance through 2020-21 if they were already identified based on the 2019 Dashboard; these are the 356 LEAs that were low-performing for one or more student groups across two or more state priority areas in the prior year.
Differentiated Assistance usually means that districts receive help from their county offices of education or the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence in identifying their strengths and weaknesses, analyzing root causes of achievement gaps and developing strategies to improve performance.
Q: Will the state issue the California School Dashboard in 2020?
A: No. In budget trailer bill SB 98, the legislature prohibited the CDE from publishing local and state indicators on a 2020 Dashboard. The federal government had already given California flexibility around this when it granted an assessment and accountability waiver in spring 2020.
During webinars conducted in April, California Department of Education (CDE) officials said they cannot issue a Dashboard because very little data will be available. The state will not have English language arts and math results, and it will also be missing ELPAC test results for English learners, which is needed to compute the English Learner Progress Indicator (ELPI). Other data would be incomplete. For example, the state will only have a partial year’s data for the chronic absenteeism and suspension rate indicators.
The CDE still plans to report some data through DataQuest and other platforms. For instance, CDE officials said at a July 8, 2020, board meeting that they may generate and publish a one-year college/career indicator and a “truncated” suspension rate.
Local indicators, including district self-reports of school climate and family engagement, could be available. However, California CDE officials anticipate that legislative action will include flexibility around the local indicators as well.
CDE officials still plan to issue Dashboard in the fall of 2021. In order to generate the Dashboard’s color-coded ratings, which are based on a combination of the most recent year’s results (called status) and improvement from the prior year (called change), the CDE intends to calculate each school and district’s change from 2018-19 to 2020-21.
Q: Were districts still required to adopt a budget by July 1? Will they be able to revise it once better revenue estimates are known?
A: Yes. Districts and county offices of education were required to adopt their budgets on or before July 1. Gov. Newsom signed the state budget by this same date.
Districts will have opportunities to make revisions to their budgets. Under state law, districts are required to make changes to their budgets with 45 days of the Governor’s signature to reflect any new information in the adopted state budget. This year, districts will almost certainly do that. What is currently unknown is whether the state might adopt multiple budgets or trigger mid-year reductions, as it did in 2009-10, which could prompt further district budget revisions. However, an August revision is likely. School districts will also be able to adjust when they file their first interim budgets, due December 15.
While districts can make revisions, one question is how they will make revisions when so much of their budgets is tied up in staffing costs that are hard to trim back in flat budget years like this one. Layoff notices to teachers, generally referred to as “certificated staff,” can usually be issued once per year, by March 15. An additional but rarely-used summer layoff window is available in years when state education funding increases by less than 2%. Although this is such a year, the legislature did not allow that window to stay operative, a prohibition it has used at least one other time in the past. If districts face severe revenue shortfalls, many will have few options besides depleting their local reserves to cover their expenses — but as the Legislative Analyst’s Office has reported, these reserves are not sufficient to maintain service levels for an extended period of time.
Q: Will suspending the Smarter Balanced test scores and other standardized tests make it more difficult to assess whether students are improving academically? What other measures, if any, could be used to measure progress?
A: Without a doubt, the lack of statewide test data will make it harder to measure the progress that was made — or the ground that was lost — during the pandemic. This is especially problematic because many researchers, educators and advocates worry that school closures could cause a steep slide in student performance that will exacerbate already-wide achievement gaps. Without a good way of measuring how much learning has been lost, both overall and for each student group, it will be harder for education leaders and policymakers to respond with the appropriate investments and interventions.
Even without statewide testing, district leaders and individual educators have many tools for measuring learning, from student projects and portfolios to interim assessments, which are shorter tests that allow educators to check what content students have mastered. To support distance learning, the state has made interim assessments aligned with Smarter Balanced — the standardized test usually give statewide each spring — available to all educators. When students return to school, educators will also be able to use these and diagnostic assessments to measure where students are academically.
Experts are cautioning that many students will return to school suffering the effects of trauma, the result of widespread disruptions in school-based routines, supports and socialization; heightened anxiety and also in some cases housing and food insecurity or exposure to domestic abuse. Some advocates and experts are encouraging state and local leaders, rather than pausing all data collection, to instead expand their use of surveys and other tools to measure students’ non-academic needs and progress, which in turn can have a direct impact on their academic performance.
Some are also eyeing the state’s slow but ongoing work to develop an indicator that will measure students’ academic growth over time. Ahead of a July 8 State Board of Education meeting, equity advocates encouraged board members to not only adopt a measure for future Dashboards, but also direct the CDE to release historical data and data to help measure learning lost during the pandemic. Some experts say this is possible and have suggested states use multiple years of non-consecutive data to measure academic growth between 2019 and 2021.
Q: What impact will suspending California’s accountability system have on California’s big push to improve student performance and close the achievement gap?
A: It is impossible to know at this stage what effect the suspension of so many accountability provisions will have on student performance.
When EdSource interviewed State Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond for its podcast in March, she emphasized that progress will continue, even if the process of reforming education through the Local Control Funding Formula is interrupted for a while. “The improvement of education that got planted with the Local Control Funding Formula, the new standards and new accountability strategies are pretty deeply planted in California. We will probably find ourselves rethinking some things as a result of the disruptions, but not in any way abandoning the progress that has been made.”
This Quick Guide was written by EdSource visiting policy analyst Carrie Gloudemans Hahnel.
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