Editorial
Editorial

How California does, and should, grade its schools

What California should think about as it overhauls the Academic Performance Index

The Academic Performance Index, by which California schools have been judged over the last 14 years, is about to get an overhaul. That's fine; the index basically boiled down standardized test scores to a single number. As a result, it overemphasized testing in math and English while giving short shrift to whether students were learning to write well or to do research. It downplayed science, history, arts and physical education.

Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to beef up the API by including some of the important measures of education beyond math and English scores. High schools, for example, would be judged by graduation rates and by how prepared their students were for college or jobs. Whether other measures should be added was left to the state Board of Education; possibilities included how many students take Advanced Placement courses and how many pass the AP tests, adjusted for the demographics of the school. Schools might be judged in part on portfolios of students' work or the depth of their science instruction.

At the moment, the API is on hiatus; the state will not be using it for a couple of years while California schools introduce an entirely new English and math curriculum based on the Common Core standards that have been adopted by about 40 states. Common Core will bring major change, and it would be unfair to judge schools during the early years as students take unfamiliar tests and get used to a new way of learning. The hiatus offers the state a good opportunity to rethink how the API is calculated.

But even as that process is underway, state education officials are already talking about yet another, bigger change in the way schools are measured. The state's new funding formula, passed last year, calls on schools to draw up plans showing how they will reach a variety of goals, such as persuading parents to take a more active role in their children's education, reducing truancy and bringing down suspension rates. According to the education website Cabinet Report, the new thinking is that the API itself, even with its new measurements, will be de-emphasized, just a small part of a larger report on schools. That report might include close to 10 new goals for schools.

It's good to see the state broadening its definition of what constitutes a quality education. At the same time, education officials should keep a few principles in mind. The public was already confused by what an API number meant. It's important to make school performance reports as understandable as possible and not crowd them with hosts of additional numbers. And the numbers that matter are the ones that measure outcomes: graduation rates, test scores, the ability to qualify for college admission. Parent engagement is a good thing, but it has little meaning if that involvement doesn't bring about better results for students.

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