Wednesday, March 20, 2013


By John Fensterwald | EdSource Today

March 19th, 2013   ::  As part of a push to measure how well a school is educating its students based on more than just test scores, California for the first time is planning to factor graduation rates into the state’s main measure of a school’s academic achievement.

The state Department of Education is recommending that as early as next year the proportion of students who receive some form of a high school diploma should account for a fifth of a school’s Academic Performance Index. The API is a composite score, between 200 and 1,000, that is based on students’ scores on standardized tests. Schools at the low end of the scale risk state sanctions, putting campuses under pressure to perform.

But how to incorporate graduation rates into the API raised challenging questions that a committee overseeing implementation of the state’s school accountability system has been struggling with. At a meeting last month, the Public School Accountability Act Advisory Committee turned aside four options for determining the graduation rate’s piece of the API that a group of experts presented, and asked for the Education Department to explore a fifth option. In April, after regional hearings and once the Education Department has crunched some numbers, the Advisory Committee may have enough information to recommend a plan to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the State Board of Education.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 11.11.14 PMThe Advisory Committee is acting on the framework prescribed in Senate Bill 1458, legislation signed into law last year. Championed by Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, it mandates that test scores comprise no more than 60 percent of a high school’s API. The State Board will decide what will make up the 40 percent, but the State Department of Education is suggesting that it be split between graduation rates and other as-yet-to-be-determined measures of college and career readiness.

At its meeting, the Advisory Committee discussed how to incorporate a high school’s graduation statistics into API’s point scale. Whether or not they graduated and got some form of a diploma, each senior would get a score, and the average of the individual scores would become the school’s or district’s graduation rate component of the API.

Difficult considerations

To determine the scoring system, the Advisory Committee had to make a value judgment: How important, relative to other measures in the API, is the graduation rate?

All of the options before the Committee assumed that a student who didn’t graduate would get the minimum score of 200 points. But should each graduate be given the maximum score of 1,000 points? Doing so would show that the state considers getting a diploma very important, and it could serve as an incentive for a high school to boost the graduation rates. Consider: If each student who received a diploma got 1,000 points, a school with an 80 percent graduation rate would get an API score of 840 for its graduation rate piece of the API. Last year, the average API for high schools – really grades 9-11 since seniors don’t take state standardized tests – was only 752. The most recent four-year graduation rate in California, for the class of 2011, was 76.7 percent.

Suppose instead a student who attains a high school diploma were credited with a score of 875, which corresponds with proficiency on a state test, the California Standards Test, or CST. That same high school, with an 80 percent graduation rate, would get only a 740 score, brought down by 20 percent of students who didn’t get a diploma.

There are other considerations:

  • How many points should a student receive who doesn’t have the credits to graduate but passes the GED, the General Educational Development test?
  • What about a student with disabilities who manages to achieve a special education certificate of completion? These are given to students with disabilities who don’t qualify for a standard diploma but who have completed an alternative course of study or have met the goals of their Individualized Education Plan for high school.
  • Given the lower graduation rates of low-income students and English learners, should there be bonus points for high-needs students who graduate with a diploma, as a reward for schools’ efforts to get them across the finish line?
  • Should there also be more points for students who complete A-G, the course requirements for admission to the University of California and California State University systems?
  • And what should be done to encourage, not penalize, alternative schools that work with students at risk of dropping out or bring dropouts, some with 4th and 5th grade math and reading levels, back to the classroom? The attendance and transfer rates at many of those schools are often very low.

“There ought to be bonus points for re-engaged dropouts with career readiness certificates, bringing them to the level they are employable,” said Ernie Silva, an administrator with SIATech, a network of dropout recovery high schools, during the public comment period at the meeting.

The Committee punted, for now, on the issue of scoring graduation rates for dropout recovery and other alternative or ASAM schools (Alternative Schools Accountability Model), as they’re called.

But members did otherwise settle on a preference for assigning API scores to graduation rates. As proposed by Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Edward Haertel, who’s an Advisory Committee member as well as a member of a group offering technical advice, each student in a four-year cohort who graduated would get 1,000 points, and students who don’t graduate – currently about 24 percent of students – would get the minimum score, 200 points. It would essentially be a pass-fail. However, there would be exceptions:

  • Students who pass a GED but don’t get a diploma would receive 800 points. But once the state adopts what’s expected to be a much more rigorous GED, they too would get 1,000 points;
  • Students with disabilities who earned a certificate of completion also would receive 1,000 points;
  • Low-income students, students with disabilities and English learners who earn a diploma would get 50 bonus points for a score of 1,050. A student who falls in two categories (low-income, English learner) would get an API score of 1,100. Conceivably, a student who falls in all three categories would score 1,150 points;
  • There would be no extra credit for A-G completion; however, there likely will be credit given as part of the 20 percent of the API score based on college and career readiness. The Committee will take that up in coming months.
Going deeper

The  Education Department will do a detailed analysis of Haertel’s proposal to see how it would affect individual high schools’ API scores. Haertel estimated that, if graduation rates were to comprise 20 percent of the overall API score, as the Department of Education recommends, and were implemented next year, his model would raise the average high school’s base 2011 API score by about 10 points.

Steinberg’s SB 1458 is written to take effect in 2016. But the Department of Education wants the State Board to adopt at least the graduation rate component this summer so that it could take effect in 2014. The reason is that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is recommending the suspension of most high school subject standardized tests after this year, to give a breather for schools to prepare for the Common Core tests to begin in the spring of 2015. In that case, the API score in 2014 would be of limited value, based solely on the high school exit exam results for 10th grade and a life science test given in 10th grade. The new grad rate would provide a more meaningful measure. However, several members of the State Board of Education, at their meeting last week, questioned the wisdom of modifying the API next year, only to turn around in two years to substantially alter it again with the addition of career readiness measures and the switch from state standardized tests to the Common Core assessments. The Board was not asked to decide.

The Advisory Committee will take up the graduation rate issue again in April for possible State Board action in May or July.

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