Credit: Green Dot Public Schools
An English language arts class at Ánimo Jefferson Charter Middle School in Los Angeles.

There are a few big reasons why students’ report cards are a useful measure of how well they are learning. Their previous report card is one. The next one is another.

But without the context and trajectory provided by three, four or many years of grades in English language arts, math and other subjects, a solitary report card is worth little more than the paper it used to be printed on. Only with the full picture can a student’s parents or caregivers judge how well their child is learning and improving.

The same is true for judging schools.

Unfortunately, the same actually isn’t true in California, which long has lacked the most fundamental measurement of school performance on the job that matters most: how well are they are educating students.

Finally, we are a step closer to this common-sense improvement after the State Board of Education earlier this month adopted student growth as the way to measure student achievement. This long overdue move, supported by a wide range of education advocates, aligns California with the assessment practices of 48 other states.

Measuring student growth means what you’d expect — tracking individual students’ performance on statewide testing, year after year. Until now, California has used the test scores of entirely different groups of students — for instance, last year’s fifth graders compared to this year’s fifth graders — as its measure of a school’s performance. Of course, the only similarity between those two sets of students is both were in the fifth grade when tested, rendering the comparison all but meaningless when judging how well their school is educating them.

If that sounds like a nonsensical comparison of the “apples to oranges” type, that is because it is. With a student growth measure in place, we will be able to determine if a school is doing a good job by seeing if its students actually are improving on these tests each year — or if the opposite is true.

Of course, parents and caregivers and teachers — not to mention policymakers and others making budgeting decisions — have to be able to access and understand these scores. And that is where serious work remains and where the state board needs to be ready to take more, and bolder, steps.

The most essential of these steps is to incorporate the growth measures into the California School Dashboard. Both the state board and California Department of Education have an opportunity to remake the dashboard into a tool for parents that truly provides them with “meaningful information” about their child’s school. While the current color-coded system is easy to use, adding student growth will demand nuances and details that may need more than a color to describe.

Most critical is how it will take into account students who may have started behind their peers and convey their progress, which could be among the fastest even if students are testing comparatively low in terms of absolute scores. The current dashboard lacks this vital measure of school performance, a major deficiency and hindrance in providing families with a clear understanding of how a school is doing.

Fortunately, the state board has time to get things right. Because testing was suspended in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, California will not have a full measure of student growth before at least 2024, when there are three years of testing results. (It could be longer if enough school districts opted to forgo California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress testing in the 2020-21 year as well.) The state board and Department of Education should take full advantage of this window of opportunity.

As both work on improving the dashboard, it is imperative that they listen attentively to the needs and wants of parents and families. Student growth, while complex, also is the best and fairest measure of student and school performance. California has the chance to provide families with meaningful information, as the dashboard now promises. It ought to make sure that information is what families say will be most useful.

•••

Annette Gonzalez is chief academic officer for Green Dot Public Schools California.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (2)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Steve Rees 3 months ago3 months ago

    I salute your call for real growth measures. And I agree fully that the "change" measure has been an invitation to misunderstandings. But why wait for three years for growth measures? And why base them on projections of expected growth. Come on! The public may be ready to accept growth inferred from historical results of the same students over time. But projected growth? It requires a statistical black box. It may be technically defensible. But … Read More

    I salute your call for real growth measures. And I agree fully that the “change” measure has been an invitation to misunderstandings. But why wait for three years for growth measures? And why base them on projections of expected growth. Come on! The public may be ready to accept growth inferred from historical results of the same students over time. But projected growth? It requires a statistical black box. It may be technically defensible. But it is certainly not reasonable to ask superintendents to sell projections to the public.

    The priests at the oracle of Delphi swirled pig entrails in bowls to make predictions. The plebian crowd was expected to accept them as an article of faith. I do not think that California educators or the public they serve are ready for leaps of faith of a similar sort.

    One more note … measures of growth are feasible now, based on five years of successive administrations of the CAASPP. Our own K-12 Measures team has built this evidenced, and delivered it to client districts for several years. No black box. Just empirical methods and comparative statistics that are no more complex than the 7th grade math standards.

  2. SD Parent 3 months ago3 months ago

    I applaud the idea of meaningful accountability for student learning. The last "P" in CASPP is for "progress," yet the state doesn't provide a means to track year-to-year progress. As for the California School Dashboard, it's currently a confusing and useless tool – where "improvement" counts more than the absolute "score" on any metric – and needs to be redesigned. Currently, the indicator scores are messy combinations of actual student outcomes and change from the … Read More

    I applaud the idea of meaningful accountability for student learning. The last “P” in CASPP is for “progress,” yet the state doesn’t provide a means to track year-to-year progress.

    As for the California School Dashboard, it’s currently a confusing and useless tool – where “improvement” counts more than the absolute “score” on any metric – and needs to be redesigned. Currently, the indicator scores are messy combinations of actual student outcomes and change from the prior year, resulting in indecipherable statistics that completely obscure the difference between a school with high student outcomes that might have slipped slightly in a metric and a school with low student outcomes but where some metric(s) might have improved significantly.

    Instead, the California School Dashboard should consist of separate indicators for absolute score and how those scores have changed over time, such as a color light (green, yellow, orange, and red) for absolute score and an arrow (up or down with length or girth based on relativity) or dial (e.g. “MPH speed”) based on the relative rate of improvement. Given that there are no CASPP scores for 2020 or 2021 (optional), this is the ideal time for a redesign.