California is getting closer to defining what a good school should look like. But how will parents know if their school is one of them?
On Thursday, the federal government released draft regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act's provisions on school accountability. Under the guidelines, states have to tell parents how their schools are doing on a range of factors — and also give the school an overall rating.
The regulations allow for that rating to be in different forms, including a number, grade, or category.
But there's still a major debate over how to weight the ingredients that define a school's quality, and how schools should present that measure of quality to parents.
President Obama signed Every Student in December as a replacement to the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education law that required annual standardized testing in most grades in reading and math, and tried to hold schools accountable based on those test scores.
Under No Child, each school was either on track or not, a binary ranking many ultimately considered too crude to capture the nuances of what determines whether a school is incredible or awful.
Every Student largely lets states create their own systems for measuring schools — the law requires that states weight academics "much" more than other factors, but also includes at least one non-academic factor.
Under ESSA, states must identify the bottom 5% of poor schools — by whatever accountability systems they devise — as well as schools where a third of students don't graduate high school on time, and low-income schools where specific groups of students persistently underperform. States must then work to help those schools improve, by any method that is "evidence-based."
One major question in California had been whether presenting the factors on a "dashboard" — without boiling them all down into a single number — would satisfy the law.
California State Board of Education President Mike Kirst previously said in an interview that he is unconvinced that there is a scientific, proven way to weight the different factors.
"In some ways, these indicators are apples, bananas and oranges," he has said. "You throw them into a blender and you get a smoothie — I don't see how you get one number." But some advocates and civil rights groups have argued that school ratings need to be boiled down to one grade or number in order for them to be parent friendly.
The federal regulations provide some clarity, but the state board still has questions. According to the regulations, states would have to give schools "comprehensive, summative" ratings, but they don't dictate how much each ingredient should factor in.
The U.S. Department of Education also ruled that states must have at least three categories for rating schools -- a pass or fail system like No Child's is insufficient. A school that gets the lowest possible score on any particular component can't get top marks for its overall performance, the rules state.
In California, the rules come after the suspension of the Academic Performance Index, the previous system used to measure schools that was criticized for over-emphasizing test scores.
Last week, the board voted on the components of its school measurement system: They include graduation rates, suspension rates, scores on upcoming science tests, chronic absenteeism and the rate at which students who are still learning English are becoming proficient. Board members are also trying to make the system mesh with another school measurement and funding system, the Local Control Funding Formula.
Kirst said he is waiting for more clarity before weighing in. "California education officials are reviewing the 500-page document and we will provide our comments when that work is complete," he said in a statement.
Ryan Smith, executive director of EdTrust West, an education advocacy group, said he was pleased because the document "finally puts a nail in the coffin around data dashboards being sufficient in the way that they're measuring schools."
But he urged the state to use the guidelines as a starting point for creating finer distinctions between schools.
"What they've heard loud and clear ... is parents want a quick at-a-glance way to see how schools are doing," Smith said. He advocated for a system that allows a family to "quickly see how a school in Compton compares to a school in Beverly Hills."
People interested in changing these rules can submit public comments before they are finalized. One looming question, though, is what happens next. States are supposed to submit their plans to the federal government by March 6 or July 5, 2017 — just in time for the next president's education secretary to reinterpret the law's requirements.