What exactly is a good school? California is trying to find out.

George Green V, a 19-year-old student, wants you to know what it means to have a black teacher with dreadlocks like his.

“When I see him teach, I’m looking at myself in the mirror,” he said. Green is studying at Sacramento Charter High School. He was diagnosed with depression at age 10, and feels comfortable talking about his feelings with his teacher, which helps him and his classmates stay engaged in school.

Green spoke to the California State Board of Education on Thursday, one of about 60 people who commented on the topic of how to define a good or bad school. Green and others contended that even though "school climate," the question of how students feel in school, is hard to measure, it should be included in that definition -- and relationships with teachers are a part of it.

The speakers came out as the state of California is trying to figure out its path forward in determining what makes a school successful. Some carried signs saying “school climate matters.” Some brought their children. Others held posters demanding the board to “redefine school success.” 

Measuring school performance is a looming question that can often feel circular. 

On Thursday, the board voted to continue evaluating different types of evidence that could be included in the state’s system for measuring schools and choosing whether to reward or punish them.

The changes come in light of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to take into account test scores in reading and math, in addition to other factors. Under ESSA, states have to use these metrics to identify the bottom 5% of their schools; schools where specific groups of students consistently underperform; and those with the lowest graduation rates.

ESSA won’t kick in for at least another academic year, but in the meantime, the state has to reconcile that upcoming deadline with the existing process for school accountability, known as the Local Control and Accountability Plan. The California Department of Education spent the meeting figuring out the “evaluation rubric,” or the standards for local school measurement that will go into effect next academic year. 

“We wanted to get a real commitment on the suspension indicator,” said Taryn Ishida, the executive director of Californians for Justice, one group that brought students to the meeting. The group wants the state to promise to include suspension rates as a measure.

The new system — ESSA included — is supposed to be a recognition of the limits of standardized testing in measuring how well schools and the students they serve are doing. The idea is to be able to convey to parents a more holistic and accurate picture of what happens in their kids’ classrooms. But board members hit a wall in connecting the requirements of ESSA to that philosophy.

For years, No Child Left Behind demanded that states regularly administer standardized tests in reading and math, and attached consequences to scores on those tests. As a result, teachers asserted that only those subjects were valued — in other words, testing drove instruction.

In creating a new accountability system that’s supposed to reflect broader priorities, the board is struggling with the fine line between new ideas and the limits of mathematics — and the long-term prevailing philosophy that in schools, things can only matter if they’re measured.

During Wednesday’s portion of the meeting, the board considered State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson's recommendation to add a new science test to reflect the Next Generation Science Standards. Torlakson also wants new history-social science tests. “Test-based instruction was the only way to show we value a subject,” said board member and Gov. Jerry Brown advisor Sue Burr. “I worry that adding another subject of summative assessment brings us back there.”

On Thursday, as discussion turned to the accountability system, board member Ting Sun asked to rethink the point of accountability. "Conceptually, we should be rewarding instead of punishing," she said. "We should be incentivizing. It's a stick and carrot -- do we want to do more carrot, or do we want to do more stick?"

But board member Patricia Rucker contends that thinking in those terms is a return to old ways, identifying winners and losers. "We're trying to avoid coming to a moment where we draw a line in the sand and a single number or idea that defines excellence," she said. 

ESSA requires that states use at least one out-of-classroom factor to measure schools, and the board is trying to figure out what that would be. When one board member proposed adding science test scores into the mix, Sun said, "I’m worried that we are rebuilding… the same system" as the state had under No Child Left Behind.

"We have to be careful to say that the only way we can value curriculum is if it's in the accountability system," Rucker said. "We have to focus on qualitative metrics."

Now, the state has to figure out what those are. Los Angeles mother LaRae Cantley said that her son has "suffered tremendously." He has hemifacial chromosome disorder, which means one side of his face is shorter than the other, and he's deaf in one ear. She's felt unwelcome on school grounds, and she wants parent participation to be a part of school ratings, at least in the local ones that go into effect this fall. "I do believe that with a measuring system in place, we can create better possibilities," she said.

Though the board committed only to evaluate all the potential metrics -- and not to focus on specific measures -- the speakers felt heard. Green, the high school student, said he noticed a change of energy in the room when he started speaking.

All the adults, he said, had their eyes on him.

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