Is The Fix In Higher Taxes And Less School Accountability

Is The Fix In Higher Taxes And Less School Accountability

Supporters of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax-hike ballot measure, Proposition 30, argue that the added tax revenues are needed so schools can, among other things, turn out high-achieving students. The head of the San Diego teachers union claims that without revenues to pay for programs and personnel, “our schools are struggling to produce students who are well-prepared for college and work in the 21st century.” The implication is that the added revenues will produce such students, but just to ensure that schools appear to be performing better if the tax increases pass, Brown just signed a bill that waters down the state school accountability system.

Since its creation in the late 1990s, California’s school accountability system has been based on the Academic Performance Index (API), which measures the performance of schools and the achievement of students. The API is based on student scores on state tests. In signing SB 1458, however, Gov. Brown significantly changed the way the API is calculated and opened the door to less rigorous accountability for schools.

Under the new law, starting in 2016 test results will constitute no more than 60 percent of the API for secondary schools. For elementary and middle schools, at least 60 percent of the API will be based on test scores. What factors will take the receding place of student test scores? The law outlines a number of options, some of which are fuzzy and troubling.

First, the state superintendent of public instruction and the state board of education “may incorporate into the API the rates at which pupils successfully promote from one grade to the next in middle school and high school, and successfully matriculate from middle school to high school.” In other words, if a school simply promotes a student from the ninth grade to the tenth, even if that student is failing to perform proficiently on state tests, the school may get a higher API score. Also, if a student simply goes from middle school to high school, regardless of how prepared that student is for high school, a higher API score could be the result.

In addition, high schools will get points based on their graduation rates, and not just for the those students who graduate in the normal four years. Schools could also get some points for students graduating in five or even in six years.

Further, and perhaps most worrisome, is the provision that states, “To complement the API, the Superintendent, with the approval of the state board, may develop and implement a program of school quality review that features locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview pupils, and examine pupil work, if an appropriation for this purpose is made in the annual Budget Act.” This provision opens the door to significant subjectivity in grading schools.

The new law doesn’t pinpoint measurement yardsticks for these school review panels to use. Education journalist John Fensterwald notes that factors such as “ties to the community, parental involvement, extracurricular life, [and] the overall school culture” could be possibilities. Such indicators, however, are highly subjective and could result in inflated evaluations that have little relationship to student proficiency in the core subjects.

Also, while the provision doesn’t specify who would sit on these panels, it’s a good bet that most reviewers will be members of the public-education establishment. Look at the 1999 law that created review panels for evaluating and assisting teachers. Instead of being staffed with independent outside experts, these panels are usually comprised of school district insiders.

For example, the teacher union contract for the Chaffey Joint Union School District, located in the Inland Empire, requires the panel to be composed of three district administrators and four teachers appointed by the local teachers union. It’s therefore unsurprising that such panels hardly ever terminate bad teachers. Similarly, don’t expect much independence or political courage from the reviewers appointed under the new law.

The end result of incorporating all these non-test, non-grade-level-proficiency and subjective factors into how the state evaluates schools is that many schools may get artificial boosts in their API scores. If Brown’s tax-hike measure passes, such a boost would be a welcome outcome for state politicians trying to justify higher tax rates.

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Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.