Commentary

California Needs to Measure Student Academic Progress

Lack of student achievement data makes it hard to evaluate school quality

Parents at Anaheim’s Palm Lane Elementary School were recently dealt a setback when the Anaheim City School District board unanimously rejected a petition to turn the failing school into a charter school.

The board said there weren’t enough valid signatures from current parents to trigger the transition to a charter school. They needed signatures from parents of 50 percent of currently enrolled students, but after more than 100 signatures were disqualified they ended up with 48 percent. The parents have 60 days to try again.

Palm Lane has been low performing since 2003, and only 38 percent of students are currently proficient in reading. Knowing those test scores is vitally important for parents, but what if there were no test scores?

For the second year in a row, California’s parents, schools and education policymakers will have very little data to measure whether students, especially the most disadvantaged ones, are making progress in math and reading.

In 2014, the state revised its pilot Common Core assessments and was granted a federal waiver exempting it from being graded on reading and math achievement based on the new assessments. California is now seeking a federal testing waiver which would allow schools to use graduation rates, attendance rates and rates of participation as measures of student achievement.

The state also suspended its Academic Performance Index, an accountability system that examined test results and identified poor-performing schools.

In addition, California’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula – which simplified a large number of school funding streams into a transparent finance formula based on student characteristics – has also complicated the state’s school accountability process.

The new law requires each school district to have a Local Control and Accountability Plan with 19 indicators of school or district performance in eight “priority” areas. However, the accountability plan does not require a summary of district performance like the Academic Performance Index, and it does not prioritize student achievement.

California needs to measure student achievement and the progress of its students.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, referred to as the nation’s report card, demonstrates that in 2013, California’s fourth grade students scored below the national average in both reading and math. On the reading assessment, 41 states outscored California, and 42 states outscored California in math. The achievement gap between the test scores of California’s well-off students and its most economically disadvantaged is troubling.

The recent lack of data measuring student progress makes it even harder for parents to evaluate school quality, and it may hurt the ability to improve schools as well.

California’s Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the parent trigger law, allows parents of students in failing public schools to “overhaul the structure and operations of their schools” through interventions like replacing school staff or becoming a charter school. But the law requires that a school show poor academic performance for two consecutive years, based on the same metrics. That requirement may be difficult to meet without accountability that measures growth in student achievement.

Today, it is unclear how California schools, like Palm Lane, will be held accountable and what role student achievement data will play in the state’s future accountability system. California needs to develop an accountability system that prioritizes student achievement and gives parents a simple way to measure school performance.

Parents need to be able to see the growth of their children over time in reading and math and make decisions about the quality of their schools based on actual evidence and data on academic performance – rather than attendance rates and test participation rates.

Lisa Snell is director of education policy at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Lisa Snell was the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.