Wednesday, August 31, 2011


By Louis Freedberg | Top-Ed - Thoughts on Public Education |

8/31/11 • Californians can’t be blamed for being confused about whether their schools are doing well or badly.

That’s because for the past decade Californians have lived with two conflicting ways of holding schools accountable for the performance of their students: a state and a federal one.

Depending on which system they turn to, Californians might be told that the very same school is either failing or succeeding.

As efforts pick up both in Washington and Sacramento to reform their respective accountability systems – and new assessments are devised under the Common Core initiative – this is the best imaginable time to work toward a single measure of rating California’s schools.

Education insiders may be able to parse the conflicting systems. But for the average Californian, the dueling systems are much more likely to confound than clarify.

That is likely to continue to be the case when California releases its updated list of Program Improvement schools – the closest a school gets to being declared “failing” under the No Child Left Behind law –  today.

Chart 1 (click to enlarge).

Chart 1 (click to enlarge).

By the measuring stick established by NCLB, California’s public school system is doing poorly – and getting worse each year.

The percentage of California schools that have made Adequate Yearly Progress has plummeted from 74 percent to 40 percent between 2005-06 and 2009-10, as this EdSource chart shows. See Chart 1.

The number of schools in need of “program improvement” – tantamount to failure under the NCLB rules – nearly tripled, from 1,200 schools in 2003-04 to 3,169 schools in 2010-11. That’s due in large part to the fact that the federal system raises the bar each year for the percentage of students expected to perform at “proficient” level.

Chart 2 (click to enlarge).

Chart 2 (click to enlarge).

And this year, an astonishing 4,600 schools, or 80 percent of  so-called Title 1 schools serving large numbers of poor children, will be stuck with the stigmatizing Program Improvement label, Superintendent of  Public Instruction Tom Torlakson disclosed last week. See Chart 2.

But based on results from California’s own accountability system, the picture is just the reverse: California schools are improving steadily each year.

Chart 3 (click to enlarge).

Chart 3 (click to enlarge).

The proportion of schools scoring 800 or more on the Academic Performance Index, the state’s benchmark for adequate school performance, has increased significantly, from 31 percent of schools in 2007 to 46 percent in 2010. See Chart 3.

The main reason that schools do better on California’s accountability system is because of the state’s emphasis on measuring improvement

Chart 4 (click to enlarge).

Chart 4 (click to enlarge).

in growth in student outcomes from year to year, rather than on meeting fixed “proficiency” targets set by the federal system.

Thus, under California’s system, the number of schools that met all their API growth targets increased from 45 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2010. See Chart 4.

Still confused? Try understanding the recent report that found California students did far better on state tests than they did on the nationally administered National Assessment of Education Progress.

That seemed to conflict with the optimistic results of California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), which showed more students than ever scoring at a proficient level or higher.

Meanwhile, leaders in Washington and Sacramento continue to push for reform of their respective systems. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is considering giving some states waivers from the most onerous, and unattainable, provision of NCLB, which mandates that all students score at a proficient level or above on state tests by 2014.

But it is far from clear that California will get a waiver, even as more and more schools are effectively labeled as failing under NCLB requirements.

In California, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and others want to revise the Academic Performance Index, the cornerstone of the state’s accountability system. In SB 547, now making its way through the Legislature, the API would be replaced with an Education Quality Index (EQI),  which would be based on multiple measures in addition to test scores.

But these bicoastal efforts, regardless of their merits, don’t resolve California’s conflicting accountability systems.

From a budgetary standpoint alone, having to maintain these two systems imposes a burdensome and arguably unnecessary expense at a time of extreme fiscal crisis for schools and the state.

This is not just an education or budget problem. It is also a political one. If lawmakers and voters can’t say with certainty whether their multibillion dollar investment in public education is paying off, it will be extremely difficult to persuade them to make further investments in California’s struggling and cash-starved schools.

Resolving the conflict will depend at least in part on what Congress does whenever it gets around to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But until the state is able to bring its system in line with the federal one, or vice versa, confusion will reign. In return for their annual investment of tens of billions of dollars in K-12 schools, Californians are entitled to a far clearer picture of how their schools are doing.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging Californians on critical challenges facing the state’s education system. He has analyzed and reported on California education policy issues for more than two decades. He was a co-founder of California Watch and previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was an education reporter, Washington correspondent, columnist, and member of the editorial board. He has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

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