The roomful of grownups closed their eyes because a teenager told them to.
“Imagine if you are 16 years old. It’s only Tuesday, and all you have left is $10,” Sky Lowe, a junior at Oakland High School, said to the California State Board of Education on Wednesday. “You sit there and you ponder: ... Will it be bus money to get to school, or will it be laundry detergent for clean clothes? You can open your eyes now.” It’s a decision he was forced to make after his mother lost her job.
The student was one of several who addressed the State Board of Education at its January meeting Wednesday. At stake is the entire foundation of the state’s education system: how California’s public schools are evaluated for their performance.
The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act, is requiring the state to rethink how it grades schools. In addition to measures of academic progress, under the new law states must take into account at least one out-of-the-classroom factor, such as suspension rates, attendance or school climate, a sense of how safe students feel in school.
The state board was going in that direction anyway, but now that the federal law requires compliance by the 2017-2018 school year, it has to figure out exactly how to weight the factors, and how to use them to determine which schools need extra help. The new direction reflects a sense across the country that standardized testing has gotten out of hand, and that academic results don’t provide a complete picture of school performance.
Because Lowe didn’t have enough bus money, he missed a lot of school this semester — enough, he told the board, that in the parlance of school accountability, “you would call [it] chronic absence.” He found himself ready to give up on school altogether, let alone college.
One of his teachers, though, sensed he was struggling and helped him in a number of ways, including giving him a bag of quarters for laundry. “I decided to get my grades up and back on track,” he said. “That is what it looks like to make school engagement a priority.”
Lowe and a group of five other students organized by the group Californians for Justice pressed the board to include school climate as a priority. An earlier draft of the new school accountability system includes seven "key indicators," including "access to basic supports," "access to basic courses," attendance, graduation rates and other academic measures. School climate is listed as an "associate indicator," and it's one of nine.
For some students and their advocates, it’s not enough. They want school climate upgraded to indicator status. “What does it mean to engage a student? We’re not talking just about reducing suspension rates,” Saa’un Bell, statewide communications director for Californians for Justice, said in an interview. “We’re talking adults who are actually encouraging students to be in school, to do their homework, that are actually engaging them in the classroom.” If engagement or climate is not a priority for school accountability, Bell said, schools are likely to be less serious about it.
In an earlier discussion that day, student board member Michael McFarland voiced support for figuring out ways to measure school climate. There’s more to school climate, said McFarland, a student at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, than surveys that ask students how safe they feel on campus. He wants to be able to get at college stress, he said, and “how is school a collaborative environment.”
But after the students’ presentations, board member Sue Burr said she doesn’t see the state asking for schools to collect even more information. “It’s not likely that we’re going to move in that direction so instead let’s look at what we have and see what’s available to us,” she said.
Others spoke to the need to focus on chronic absenteeism or suspension rates.
In the meantime, until Every Child Succeeds kicks in, the board has to deal with reality: it still has to operate under the strictures of No Child Left Behind, which was widely criticized for being too punitive. Unlike most other states, California has not received a waiver from certain elements of the law. On Wednesday, the board voted to apply for one that would lift the requirement of identifying new schools that don’t make Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the law, and that districts with underperforming schools have to set aside a significant portion of their budgets for tutoring.