When Betsy DeVos spoke to a group of education leaders in Washington last week about her dissatisfaction with states' efforts to satisfy a major education law, she gave California a subtle shout-out.
One state, the Education secretary said, "took a simple concept like a color-coded dashboard and managed to make it nearly indecipherable."
She was referring to the California School Dashboard, the color-coded school rating tool at the heart of the state's plan to satisfy the Every Student Succeeds Act. California and DeVos' U.S. Department of Education have been in a months-long argument over how to satisfy the law.
Every Student Succeeds, known as ESSA, is the Obama administration's 2015 replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act. The law is supposed to hold states accountable for educating all groups of students adequately. Where No Child took a prescriptive, test score-based approach to evaluating the quality of schools, ESSA gives states more agency to design their own systems.
California's answer was the Dashboard, which aimed to shift the focus of school ratings from test scores alone to a greater variety of measures, including graduation rates, suspensions and preparedness for college and careers.
State officials say following the California Way means finding the best way to help California's uniquely diverse group of students. That's why they focused on aligning the plan for satisfying ESSA with a state law, the Local Control Funding Formula. But while the funding formula requires the state to identify and help entire low-performing school districts, ESSA requires states to step in and aid individual failing schools.
State officials flew to D.C. in February and met with DeVos deputy Jason Botel to figure out a way forward. Botel sent them back to the drawing board on some issues.
The state board had planned to vote on submitting yet another draft of the plan in this week's meeting. But late Tuesday, less than 24 hours before the meeting's start, board staff recommended waiting until April to vote on some of the biggest changes. Still, ESSA's fall deadline for states to begin identifying failing schools is approaching.
The state's new proposals include devising clearer metrics for rating the annual performance of specific student groups and giving greater weight to test scores in 11th grade.
As for the Dashboard, the plan is to use some metrics in two ways — to satisfy state and federal requirements.
"We will maintain the approach we have for the Dashboard, but we're describing it differently in the federal plan," David Sapp, the state board's assistant counsel and deputy policy director, said on a call with education leaders last week. Performance and growth on test scores, for example, are combined on the Dashboard; but for federal purposes, the state will report them separately.
"It sounds to me like they are trying to make changes to the plan without making changes to the system," said Carrie Hahnel, deputy director of research and policy at the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group focused on educational equity. "What that communicates to me is they're building a bifurcated system again, which is exactly what they [the State Board of Education] said they didn't want to do."
The state still hasn't told federal officials how it will identify California's bottom 5% of schools before stepping in to help them. State officials had hoped to start by looking at low-achieving districts but Botel nixed the idea, Sapp said.
Late Tuesday, state officials finally posted a new proposal to address the problem — too late to be studied for a vote this week — that would use different combinations of colors on the Dashboard to find the worst-performing schools.
7:12 a.m.: This article was updated with DeVos' praise of Gov. Brown for his support of local control of schools.