STANDARDIZED TESTING

These California districts are measuring schools in a new way

Starting in February, a group of California districts will begin evaluating their schools on more than just test scores.

On Friday, a group including some of the largest school systems in the state called CORE will unveil its new formula for measuring public schools at the California School Boards Assn. Conference in San Diego.

And for the first time, new metrics will count: In addition to academic performance, school scores will account for how safe children feel in school, suspension rates, skills not measured by traditional academic tests such as self-control and social awareness, and how quickly students who don't speak English are learning the language, among other factors. The idea is to evaluate schools in a more nuanced way that captures a broader picture of what happens in schools. The group is also releasing preliminary results on its first attempts at using those measures.

“We have known for a long time that academic performance is one of many factors that make a great school, but CORE districts are now serving as a model for how we can actually measure these factors and look more holistically at school outcomes,” Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said in a statement. “Educators have created an index that captures more information that matters.” 

CORE will release its first round of school reports in early February. Previously, schools in California have been measured and evaluated in accordance with their test scores, a statewide metric known as the Academic Performance Index. But in February, a group of six school districts that are part of CORE will start grading its schools according to the new formula, called the School Quality Index, with each receiving a score out of 100.

“The idea is to shift accountability away from accountability designed to name, shame and blame schools,” said Noah Bookman, CORE’s chief accountability officer who previously served as L.A. Unified’s director of performance management. He described the new system as a “flashlight,” designed to equip schools with the information they need to improve. The index also holds schools to a tougher standard when it comes to making sure traditionally overlooked groups of students are accounted for.

CORE is unveiling its framework as the state of California figures out how to measure schools. California suspended API as schools transitioned to new tests aligned with the Common Core learning standards. 

These revisions occur against a background of a potential major change in federal law: This week, the House of Representatives approved a replacement to the No Child Left Behind Act, called the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law would give states more say over how they identify and discipline underperforming schools. 

California Board of Education President Mike Kirst says that pending any new federal regulations, the board hopes to replace API by July. In formulating the new system, Kirst said he is keeping an eye on CORE. While he agrees with CORE’s use of new ways to look at school progress, he is not yet convinced by the way in which it weights the different factors and boils them down to one score. 

“In some ways, these indicators are apples, bananas and oranges,” he said. “You throw them into a blender and you get a smoothie — I don’t see how you get one number.”

For the 2014-15 school year, the scores used by the six CORE districts will count academic performance for 60% of the overall score. That academic score will include English Language Arts and math exams, as well as high school graduation rates at the high school level, and a measure for high school readiness for 8th graders at the middle school level. The other 40% will include measures of the school that are different from performance, such as how many students are missing significant amounts of school, how many students are suspended or expelled, and how many English language learners have become fluent.

Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, once there are scores for two consecutive years of the new state tests, the academic component of the index will include a measure of how those scores change over time. The index will also begin to incorporate surveys administered to students, staff and parents on school culture and climate, which seeks to measure whether the school feels like a safe place. It will include a component on students’ non-academic "social emotional" skills. 

The reports that schools will receive emphasize the different factors that make up their score, but it is largely the school’s overall score out of 100 that determines what happens next. The lowest-performing schools, in addition to some other schools showing persistently low performance among specific groups, are given supports for improvement, such as being paired with a better-performing school that has similar traits. “We’re building capacity from within, not an outside group telling you what to do with your school,” Bookman said.

CORE counts nine districts as members, but only six of them will use the new index, because they together received a No Child Left Behind waiver from the federal government that allows them to devise their own accountability system. Those districts are LAUSD, Long Beach, Fresno, Oakland, Santa Ana and San Francisco. Overall, they educate more than 1 million students.

The other three CORE member districts — Garden Grove, Sacramento City and Sanger — along with the rest of the state of California, are operating under outdated No Child Left Behind mandates. The federal waiver allows six of the CORE districts to operate under the system they developed. It is unclear how that would change if and when the new federal law goes into effect.

The terms of the waiver dictate that CORE must ultimately give schools a single grade. But David Plank, a Stanford University professor and the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, says that the requirement "is problematic for what CORE is trying to do and what the state board is trying to do." Having a number for each school, he said, could continue to fuel reductive school comparisons that drive things like real estate choices.

"That's what parents will focus on," he said. "Where do we stand relative to other schools, not what do we know about how our school is doing on community engagement or a number of other indicators? There's a political reality here: The federal government is requiring this."

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits.

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