California's schools are going to have to answer for more than just test scores, by the year after next. The state may also judge them on suspension rates, graduation rates, attendance and the rate at which students who are still learning English are becoming proficient.
Those are the measures the California State Board of Education voted on Wednesday to include in its new school ratings system. The vote came after more than 100 members of the public spoke about what they think a good school looks like. They pressed the board to include non-academic factors, such as surveys on school climate — a measure of how safe a school feels — parental engagement and suspension rates.
Draquari McGhee, a Fresno high school student, told the board he could remember the moment he nearly gave up on school. It was earlier this year, when, he said, he was suspended for three days for being on his phone while walking to class. The vice principal told him he would be arrested for trespassing if he didn't leave class, he said, and the experience left him feeling like he couldn't excel.
"My engagement deteriorated overall," he said. "I felt like I was a bad student." That's why, he told the board, the state should use suspension rates as a key metric for schools.
A teacher known as "Mama B" supported McGhee and helped him get back on track. But the suspension almost derailed him, he said, as it could other students.
School discipline rates, and particularly the disproportionate numbers of students of color being punished at school, have faced recent scrutiny. Los Angeles Unified, for example, banned suspensions for defiance recently, but since then, teachers have reported struggling with the classroom management strategies devised to take their place.
The changes come as California revamps its method for measuring schools, and how it intervenes in those deemed to be performing poorly. They follow years of reliance on the now-suspended Academic Performance Index, a measure that depended on test scores that, in the words of board member Bruce Holaday, "make real estate agents so happy" in its simplicity. The index, many say, was far too simplistic and did not provide a cumulative glimpse of what happens inside schools.
To correct that problem, satisfy a new federal law and align state and local methods for measuring schools, the state is devising a new system for use in the 2017-18 school year. Late last year, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bill that largely lets states devise their own ratings systems — a replacement to the No Child Left Behind Act, which, similar to API, relied primarily on test scores. Under the new law, states must take into account at least one out-of-classroom factor in rating schools.
Shortly after McGhee spoke, the board voted and approved the motion, which specified that the academic component will measure both raw test scores and student growth in reading, math and science, once the state has results from its upcoming new science test. It also includes chronic absenteeism, a metric of students who are absent for many days, when that information becomes available.
In July, the board will revisit potentially adding school climate and a factor that measures how prepared for college California's students are. These ingredients will also be part of the Local Control Funding Formula, a new school funding system that has additional factors used in school district-level ratings.
Any decisions the board makes at this point could be vulnerable to change, given that the U.S. Department of Education has yet to regulate the parts of ESSA that touch on the accountability question. The law requires that each state create a system that "meaningfully differentiates" using the new evaluation systems. Under the law, states must intervene in the lowest-performing 5% of schools, as well as schools with the lowest graduation rates and those where specific groups of students consistently underperform.
One major question is whether the law means that states have to rank schools against one another. Board President Mike Kirst has said that California will not do that, since there is no research-backed way to boil down all the different factors that go into the evaluations down to one number.
The desire to measure schools more holistically is butting up against another priority: creating a system that is clear and coherent to parents. Sue Burr, a board member and Gov. Jerry Brown advisor, reiterated the need for "a set of concise indicators, for purposes of state decision making." Many of the additional factors used by districts, she said, can't even be used by the state because they can't be standardized or proved to be statistically valid.
Before the vote, a task force appointed by the state superintendent to look at accountability presented its recommendations, which included a focus on child health and wellness. Beyond the factors required to rate schools, the report recommended having the state report on things like the completion of A-G requirements, Advanced Placement completion statistics and physical fitness. You can read the report here (PDF).
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6:47 a.m.: This story was updated to include a link to the motion, and information about the state's new science tests.