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For ParentsK-12

How California's new method for interpreting test scores is a little bit like scores in golf

Brooklyn Avenue Elementary got a blue for math, despite having a negative "distance from 3" score. (California Department of Education)
Brooklyn Avenue Elementary got a blue for math, despite having a negative "distance from 3" score. (California Department of Education)

This week, the state launched the California School Dashboard, a new color-coded system for rating schools. 

As we reported, a Times analysis found that the state graded schools on a curve for academics. In recent testing, just half of students reached state benchmarks for math and English but the dashboard rates 80% of schools blue, green and yellow — the top three of five color rankings. 

That shift from half failing to most succeeding is partly because of the curve but also because the new ratings factor in how much progress schools make.

In making these calculations, the state used a new kind of benchmark, called distance from three.

Let’s take a step back. Every year, students across California take CAASPP tests. The state takes the raw scores and — based on thresholds it sets called “cut scores" — divides them into five groups. A 1 means you’re in the lowest group, a 5 means you’re in the highest group, and a 3 is the bar for proficiency.

Hence, distance from 3.

A school’s distance from 3 will be positive if its average score is above the bar for proficiency and negative if it falls below. Statisticians and board members say distance from 3 captures a more nuanced picture of performance. 

It's a little bit like golf, in which players' scores are above or below par. Like the bar for proficiency, par is the number of shots a well-prepared golfer is expected to need in order to complete a hole. Par varies for each hole and course, based on its distance and toughness. 

So if a golfer finishes a course with a par of 70 in 75 strokes, he will have a score of five above par. In that way, it’s like distance from three — except that in golf, being under par is better.

The difference between a school's distance from 3 and its dashboard color rating might seem surprising.  As you can see below, it’s possible to have a negative distance from 3 — meaning an average score below proficiency — but be rated green, the second-highest performance category.

 (California Department of Education)
(California Department of Education)

In some cases, schools can leapfrog even into the highest color category because of the progress they've made.

One such school is Brooklyn Avenue Elementary in East Los Angeles. 

Scores on the 2015-16 math test showed that just above half of Brooklyn’s students met state standards. Brooklyn therefore earned a negative distance from 3. 

However, due to the generous curve and the fact that Brooklyn improved by 16 points in one year, the school got a blue in math -- which might be confusing for parents.

Principal Nora Gonzalez, however, said she doesn't see a problem with that because Brooklyn consistently outperforms other nearby schools. She did, however, acknowledge that “there’s still 48% [of students] that aren’t meeting expectations, so there’s room for improvement.”

She attributed the year-to-year score growth to high expectations, targeted tutoring and giving students Chromebooks so they could practice taking the tests. 

“My teachers still don’t know about these colors,” she said. “We’re here to make sure that the students learn and we do the best that we can.”

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