How to best track the progress of California’s public schools and hold them accountable for educating students continues to spur debate.
In 2013, California’s Local Control Funding Formula law streamlined education funding, giving school districts more flexibility and control over spending decisions. However, it also complicated accountability efforts by calling for broader measures of school performance, such as student engagement and parent involvement.
Now, California is moving away from its long-used Academic Performance Index – a single number assigned to schools based on their standardized test results. The state says it’s shifting away from test results and adopting “holistic” metrics for school evaluation and intervention.
The State Board of Education recently signed off on several metrics that will be included in the new evaluation system. Some of these measures are straightforward, like English Language Arts and math state test scores, high school graduation rates and the progress of English-as-a-second-language-learners. These measures are required by federal mandates in the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act, which was billed as the replacement to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The new system will also include science scores and a measure for charting the growth of individual student test results, which will be valuable in giving credit to schools that help students increase their achievement levels.
Conversely, some of the new metrics aren’t appropriate for evaluative purposes. Schools will be judged on suspension and absenteeism rates, which can be easily manipulated. The state board also directed staff to explore the feasibility of incorporating school climate survey results – do you like your school?
To make matters worse, the state isn’t planning on providing parents with a user-friendly index that allows them to compare school-by-school performance levels. According to state Board of Education President Michael Kirst, parents will get plenty of other data.
“If you’re smart enough to look at five things on the dashboard of a car and still drive, you should be able to understand a school,” Kirst said. “For the people who say parents can’t understand multiple measures, then these parents shouldn’t be driving.”
Mr. Kirst’s statement not only highlights an alarming take on who should have final say over a child’s education, but inadvertently raises an important question about accountability: are parents really in the driver’s seat?
First, parents don’t just need data, they need the ability to make apples-to-apples comparisons of schools. A dashboard of data that is incapable of comparing the reading scores between two schools isn’t all that helpful to parents.
Second, parents aren’t really driving this process. In California, most kids are assigned to schools based on where their families live. This practice especially hurts low-income families, who tend to live near lower-performing schools. Many of these families have no alternatives when their neighborhood schools are failing.
Brooking Institution’s 2015 Choice and Competition Index evaluated 113 U.S. school districts on numerous categories such as quality and performance, equitable enrollment practices and alternatives available to district schools. Three of the districts included were from Orange County -Capistrano Unified, Garden Grove Unified and Santa Ana Unified. And two of those districts were among the worst in the country: Garden Grove ranked 97 and Santa Ana ranked 108 out of 113. Parents in those districts aren’t able to drive change and aren’t able to just pick up and choose better schools.
It is true that test results alone fail to capture many important outcomes of education. But getting rid of the Academic Performance Index and replacing it with feel-good measures won’t help parents or kids. Real school accountability can only be delivered by promoting policies that increase the number of high-quality options for parents and empower them with the information and power to decide which schools are best for their kids. In this scenario, great schools would be rewarded and failing schools would be closed. That’s how the state Board of Education could let parents take the wheel.
Aaron Garth Smith is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.