California education officials have managed to make their new school-accountability system even more complicated. The new "dashboard," which replaces the old numbers-based Academic Performance Index, has a welcome goal: ending the over-reliance on test scores as a way to measure a school's quality. But here's the unfortunate byproduct: The dashboard has morphed into a tough-to-understand jumble of pie charts, ratings and text offering measurements of a school's performance on nearly a dozen different factors, some obviously relevant and others not so much. Tellingly, the slide show that the state has posted to help people use the new dashboard runs 38 slides long.
As conscientiously as they have gone about their job, state education experts simply haven't brought forth a useful tool for parents. At this week's Board of Education meeting, the school reform group Parent Revolution will offer a more effective way to present the data collected on school performance, and the board should embrace it.
There is nothing more important in the world of school accountability than giving parents and the public clear, easy-to-understand information about how well their schools are performing. All the school choice in the world won't matter if parents can't get a handle on how likely their children are to master academic subjects at the local school, and how it compares with a charter school a few blocks away or a harder-to-reach magnet school. Yet the State Board of Education has continually refused to provide parents with clear and relevant numbers that would give them an overall picture of each school.
At this point California has spent years without an accountability system at all, while it shifted to a new testing system based on the Common Core curriculum standards and got busy fashioning this new dashboard. The resulting charts are supposed to provide information about everything from school culture to how well prepared students are to go on to college or decent jobs.
The state plans to put the new accountability system online later this month for public testing, with a formal launch next fall. The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss some of the unresolved fine points, such as how best to measure something as amorphous as "school climate." While such refinements may be necessary, they won't help with the dashboard's dizzying complexity.
That's why the board should heed what Parent Revolution plans to offer. Its proposed change would add two overall measurements for each school in the form of pie charts. One would pull together a school's academic accomplishments into a single rating (test scores, graduation rates and the like) and the other would sum up such nonacademic factors as school culture.
By adding the two new symbols at the top of each school's chart, the state could deliver a quick synthesis of a school's performance. It would still be basing its overall measurement on far more than just test scores, but without leaving parents befuddled about the basics they really want to know.
In other words, it quickly answers the question: What does all this mean? At the same time, parents are free to peruse all the other details about the school, or just those that they feel are most important for their situation.
The two symbols also would help parents and the public in a way that the existing report doesn't: They would differentiate between academic performance and other issues such as suspensions and parent engagement whose relationship to student learning is unclear.
It's nice to know when a school has reduced the number of students it suspends for minor infractions, but that statistic alone doesn't tell parents whether students being disciplined in less draconian ways are being helped to learn. If they're sent to the cafeteria for the day instead of being sent home, how is that helping them learn? Similarly, measuring parent engagement — how involved parents are in their children's school — is a generally good thing, but that data point won't necessarily reveal how well a school is educating kids.
The state defends the dashboard by saying that a single number, like the old API score, can mask issues that aren't reflected by simple test scores. It's absolutely right. But it has replaced that with a system that does its own masking by throwing in too many factors, and too many measurements of uncertain value, without any overall indication of whether a school is doing well or badly. That's not real accountability.
Parent Revolution is offering up a solution that could fix the problem without throwing out or diminishing the dashboard. The board should be open-minded enough to consider simplifying these reports by adding to them a little bit.