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K-12

Education board greenlights changes to the way test scores are categorized

Los Angeles Unified School District students at Harris Newmark High School (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Unified School District students at Harris Newmark High School (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The California State Board of Education voted unanimously on a controversial proposal to change how test scores translate into ratings for schools and school districts.

The vote Wednesday followed a long discussion about whether the state's statistical design group works in secret, and whether the change might mislead parents.

The change would be made to the California School Dashboard, a new education rating tool unveiled in preview form this year. It’s supposed to provide a more holistic sense of how a school is doing.

The Dashboard translates test scores into colors — blue for the best, red for the worst — and presents numerous color-coded measures of school success.

The data underlying the Dashboard are supposed to be updated soon to reflect a new round of testing from 2017.

But the new scores showed stagnation, something officials didn't plan for when defining the ranges of the colors. "We guessed the trends," board member Sue Burr said. "We were off."

In anticipation of the Dashboard update, education officials said a change was necessary because otherwise many schools and districts that saw only small changes to their scores would go up or down by two colors from one year to the next. In a technical memo to the board, they explained that changing the rubric would mitigate this volatility.

A group of 14 education advocacy organizations wrote a joint letter protesting the move, saying it would lower the bar for students. At the meeting, some of them criticized the fact that the proposal appeared on the agenda at the last minute, at the suggestion of a "technical design group" that meets in private and does not publicly list its members.

"The change combined with the way in which you arrived at your decision will leave you vulnerable to the criticism that you changed the rules because you didn't like the outcome," said Brian Rivas, Director of Policy and Government Relations for one of the organizations, the Education Trust-West.

Deputy Supt. Keric Ashley said he would tell anyone who asked who the members are but "we’re trying to insulate them from those without technical expertise."

Even the professionals found the statistical change confusing. "We’ve been here the last 30-40 minutes explaining this to ourselves," said board member Bruce Holoday. "We have to be careful about communicating this to parents."

The tweaks passed unanimously, but two board members, Patricia Rucker and Feliza Ortiz-Licon, asked for a breakdown of how the performance of minority students would look using the new calculations.

Groups of students also came to the meeting to ask the state to measure school climate — how safe a school feels — in an annual survey. Board members expressed reservations about doing so, and did not take any action.

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