State must reveal, not conceal, school aptitude

San Francisco Chronicle, November 24, 2009

This year marks the 10th anniversary of California’s Public Schools Accountability Act, an early legislative triumph of then-Gov. Gray Davis. While some good things have come out of the law, the act has failed in its two key missions: to inform parents and the public about the true performance of schools and students, and to impose widespread tough consequences on failing or underperforming schools.

In contrast to funding-focused measures, such as Proposition 98, the act commendably sought to spotlight school and student outcomes, especially results on the state’s standardized tests. While many educators complain about this emphasis on student testing, the real problem turned out to be how the act uses test scores to measure school performance.

The act uses the Academic Performance Index, or API, to measure the performance of schools. Based on student results on the state’s California Standards Tests, the API calculates a score on a scale of 200 to 1,000 for every school, with the state designating 800 as the target to which all schools should strive to achieve.

Most Californians have little idea what the API numbers mean because the API doesn’t talk about performance in terms that people understand. For example, people understand grade-level proficiency, which basically means that students have full mastery over grade-level subject matter. People can understand proficiency, but they don’t understand the API.

Worse, the API masks performance problems at seemingly high-achieving schools. Take, for example, Beverly Hills High School. In 2008, the school posted an API score of 805, above the state target of 800. Yet, if one looked behind the API score, one would find that 4 out of 10 11th-graders scored below the proficient level on the state English test. Further, more than half of students taking the state Algebra 2 test and almost 60 percent of those taking the state geometry exam failed to achieve proficiency. Indeed, there are literally hundreds of schools in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods where significant percentages of students fail to achieve grade-level proficiency. No one knows it because the API cloaks these deficiencies.

The state also calculates annual API growth targets for each school scoring below 800. Yet, the growth targets are set at relatively minimal levels, so much so that it could take poor performing schools decades to reach 800. Further, these schoolwide growth targets fail to address the fact that even if a school achieves its annual growth target, many individual students may still be performing well below grade-level proficiency.

Instead of the confusing and misleading API, California should create a value-added scoring system that focuses not on aggregate schoolwide performance but on the individual achievement of each and every student.

Every student should receive an annual achievement growth target pegged to the student achieving grade-level proficiency by the time he or she graduates.

The act’s other major flaw is that it has failed to impose tough consequences on underperforming schools. The law contained a host of potential consequences for a failing school, including removal of the principal, reconstitution (replacing the faculty), and being turned into a charter school. As it turned out, these tough consequences were virtually never used on failing or underperforming schools.

Instead, an academic improvement team is usually dispatched to poorly performing schools to give the school advice. That’s it.

Without tough consequences for poor performance, such as giving students at failing schools a school-choice voucher to go to better-performing private schools, there has been little incentive for schools to improve dramatically.

On its 10th anniversary, the act stands as a disappointment. Unless the law is reformed to reveal, not conceal, the true picture of individual student achievement, and to mete out real consequences for poor school performance, Californians shouldn’t expect improvements in educational quality anytime soon.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

This article appeared on page A – 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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.

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