California’s schools won’t be judged only by their test scores, school board votes

The lockers are gleaming with a fresh coat of purple paint on the first day of school at the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA), a new girls-only school in Los Angeles. Schools statewide will soon be evaluated across a set of new categories.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles TImes)

California is officially done with telling parents that schools are only as good as their test scores.

The state Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to rate schools using an evaluation that includes many more factors — among them academics, graduation rates, college preparedness and the rates at which non-native speakers are learning English.

The evaluations will incorporate scores on new science tests when those tests are ready. Attendance data also will factor in eventually.


But unlike in the past, schools will not get an overall rating. Instead, they’ll receive results on how they’re doing across the new categories, for different groups of students. The results will focus not just on how they’re doing now but how they’ve progressed from year to year.

The vote marks the end of a long philosophical shift away from judging schools using only their test scores, as more people agree that numbers alone can never capture the complexity of classrooms.

In 2013, the Legislature passed the Local Control Funding Formula, which finances education by allotting a certain amount of money for each child, plus extra if that child had special needs.

In Thursday’s vote, the board satisfied a requirement that by Oct. 1, 2016, there be a statewide system for evaluating schools along the lines of the funding formula’s eight priorities, which include parent engagement and school climate. If a school district’s performance and progress in two or more priorities are low, the corresponding county education office is supposed to intervene.

The new system replaces the Academic Performance Index, the state’s test-based accountability system that gave each school a one-number rating.

The shift in direction, officials said, should make the accountability process more broadly useful. “There are many functions of accountability, not just finding schools and districts that are not meeting performance standards,” board President Mike Kirst said.


More than 100 parents, students and others spoke about the plan before the board voted. Laurie Benn, who lives in Altadena, left her house at 4 a.m. Thursday to fly to Sacramento.

The mother of seven, whose children attend school in Pasadena, said she made the trip because she needed the board to know the type of information she is looking for as she tries to determine which schools are best.

The state board discussed presenting an array of factors — test scores, suspension rates. But Benn wanted something else: a single rating for each school, which, she said, “would give me an idea of which school I would like to look at” before she investigated further.

Benn came with Parent Revolution, a group that organizes parents to take control over who leads those schools deemed to be failing. Determining which schools fit this bill might be more difficult with the new less clear-cut, many-layered assessments.

Advocates and some parents hope that the decision about whether to use a single rating or not isn’t necessarily final. They contend that the board will have to revisit accountability soon, because of the timeline of implementing a new federal law.

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December. Known as ESSA, the law replaced the more test-centric No Child Left Behind Act. Every Student mandates that states continue to emphasize academics in assessing schools — but, in line with California’s desire to look at more than scores, it requires the consideration of at least one non-academic factor.

The new law requires that states use their accountability system to identify the lowest-performing 5% of schools serving low-income students, low-income schools where specific groups of students underperform, as well as high schools where one-third of students don’t graduate on time. States must then help those schools improve.

Kirst maintained that the proposal the board voted on Thursday satisfied the federal statute. He acknowledged, though, that school evaluations may not align with the federal government’s proposed regulations, which require states to give schools “comprehensive, summative” ratings.

Still, although the public comment period for those federal regulations regarding school accountability just ended recently, they might not be set in stone for months and priorities could change with a new president.

Kirst and others have resisted boiling down the different factors that make up an evaluation into one rating because there are no conclusive findings that can guide how much each one should be weighted.

Samantha Tran, education policy director of the advocacy group Children Now, maintained that the new Local Control Funding Formula framework doesn’t comply with federal law. “There are some key equity guardrails that they’re not embedding,” she said. “For the kids that are furthest behind, you have to have standards with expectations for them to grow faster.”

Board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon expressed similar concerns. “I’m still disappointed in this system as it relates to decreasing the achievement gap,” she said.

More than 300 groups have signed on to a letter supporting AB 2548, a bill co-sponsored by Children Now that includes different growth standards for different student groups and would give academic factors more weight. The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The board received much criticism a few months ago when it released a preliminary model for how school ratings might be conveyed to the public in a series of colored boxes. People called the meaning behind those boxes impenetrable. Benn compared trying to glean information from the boxes to “digging in a ditch.”

The board isn’t taking action on how to represent the school assessments yet. Kirst likened school accountability to a cellphone, and said Thursday’s vote targeted the operating system, not the screen. Still, officials presented an updated model of the colored boxes template, designed by a graphic artist. On the color scale, red represented the worst and blue the best.

For each school, next to each factor being considered, a ball would be colored, either fully or partially depending on its measurement. The color coding scheme remained unchanged from the boxes.

But State Board of Education senior fellow Nancy Brownell called the concept “much different from our Excel spreadsheet set of boxes.”

She noted that the balls are called Harvey Balls, and are used by Consumer Reports in its rating charts — not to be confused with Harvey Balls, the creator of the smiley face.

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at


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