Why California is struggling to craft a fair, forward-looking way to assess public schools
(Photos by Rachel Luna/The Sun, SCNG) PHOTOS: State Superintendent Tom Torlakson tours San Bernardino school's linked learning program
Between 1999 and 2013, California’s Academic Performance Index boiled everything about the state’s K-12 public schools down to a single number between 200 and 1000. That’s going away in a new, more nuanced system that’s now under construction.
In the old model, the desirability of neighborhoods or even whole communities in large part hinged on their API score. Careers were made or lost based on how far a school or district was from the magic 800 target number. And under the federal No Child Left Behind law, failure to steadily increase an API score — even an already high one — could mean dire trouble for a school or district.
But the API was only based on the results of standardized tests taken by the students. And those results, research has repeatedly shown, largely just measure the socio-economic environment the students come from and don’t paint much of a nuanced picture beyond that.
“That was essentially a measure of the average level of student achievement at the school. That’s not a very good measure of how good a school is, from the standpoint of how good a school is at making a kid smarter,” said Morgan Polikoff, a USC associate professor of education. “It’s a pretty good measure of the kind of kids who are enrolling in the school, like what the poverty level of the school is, but not how good the school is at teaching.”
In 2014, California’s State Board of Education pulled the brakes on calculating API while the state switched over to new standardized tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Those new Smarter Balanced tests, which students took for the second time this past spring, will be just one factor in a new accountability being created to replace the API score.
“I think they will go with a single number,” said Dale Marsden, superintendent of the 53,000-studentSan Bernardino City Unified School District, “but it won’t be based on a single factor.”
A draft version of a proposed color-coded reporting system for public schools was released in July. The proposed report card draws a lot from the NCLB-successor, Every Student Succeeds Act. It looks at how a school does in English Language Arts and math standardized tests but also looks at how well students learning English as a second language are doing, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, suspension rates, college and career readiness and other factors.
“Schools do a lot more than just test scores,” Polikoff said. “By boiling everything down to just one test Why California is struggling to craft a fair, forward-looking way to assess public schools: