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Commentary: Will California come out of the shadows on standards to protect its students?

Guest contributor | March 22, 2016

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By Iris Maria Chávez

Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes, and no state has taken that message more to heart than California. Alone among the 50 states, California stopped reporting accountability ratings for public schools in 2013 and was the first state in the nation to hit pause on accountability.

Now, with responsibility for accountability largely in the hands of states under the updated federal education law, the question looms: Will California reinstate real accountability to protect its 6.2 million students who are overwhelmingly low-income and Spanish-speaking, or will it remain in the shadows?

To understand how we got here, a little history lesson is in order. In 2013, the California legislature, with House Bill 484, put in place new assessments and paused utilizing API (California’s longtime accountability system) to allow for implementation of the new assessments.

The legislature also passed a new funding system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that requires districts to develop Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that map performance targets and create plans to achieve those targets. In 2015, the state began full-scale use of the new Smarter Balanced assessment, and the State Board of Education paused use of the API for yet another year. It is not clear when exactly it will return.

There are many reasons for Californians to take a moment and ask, “How do we ensure that schools are supporting students, that parents have quality information about their schools, and the state is monitoring and supporting improvement?”

Many of the changes that are being implemented are intended to improve achievement for California students in the long term, but there’s a lot at stake, particularly for students of color. Improvement has been slow for all groups of California students, and the state ranks in the bottom 10 compared to all states, in all grades and subject areas for students overall on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP).

Latino and African American students continue to underperform compared to their white peers. While Latino students have been making slow, steady gains on most subjects on NAEP (16 points on eighth-grade reading since 2003) the Latino-white gaps continue to range between 24 to 30 points.

In 2015, Hispanic students had an average fourth-grade reading score that was 31 points lower than that for white students. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 1998 (35 points). In 2015, black students had an average fourth-grade reading score that was 33 points lower than that for white students, and this performance gap was not significantly different from that in 1998 (31 points). The Education Trust West recently released a report, Black Minds Matter, that lays out the troubling impact, on students and their future, if “the California Department of Education [continues to] lack an office, initiative or committee focused on African American achievement or the achievement gap, more generally.” We need a clear, coordinated focus on closing the achievement gap in California.

We need systems and policy changes that support better schools and better achievement for students. In the short term, however, many of these new policies come with some troubling challenges and many are having a negative impact on the availability of consistent, high-quality information on student, and school, performance.

The effects of recent actions have far-reaching implications for parents, advocates and policymakers. Without annual information, from high-quality assessments, on school and district performance, the state and district lack meaningful data to inform and enforce intervention decisions for low-performing schools, essentially putting the most needed interventions on hold for years.

Parents do not have objective information regarding school performance. Educators and school leaders lack the ability to compare their school’s performance to similarly situated schools across the state for the last few years. And charter management organizations (CMOs) and philanthropic partners do not have performance data to inform decisions regarding support of charter schools.

The State Board of Education is currently considering what a new accountability system ought to include. At a minimum, any new accountability system must be transparent and easily understandable by parents. It should be based on multiple measures, including college and career readiness and graduation rates as well as evidence of student growth.

Finally, the purpose of accountability is not simply to show us where we succeed and where we fall short but to actually drive improvements where needed. California should establish clear statewide goals by subgroup and publicly report progress toward these goals, district goals should be tied to these state goals, and  schools and districts that fail to make sufficient progress toward these goals should receive escalating assistance and interventions.

Even before the new federal law shifted the power away from Washington, the state was responsible for protecting children, promoting equity and ensuring a quality education for all kids. If we know one thing in the new century it is that, in the modern economy, ignorance is anything but blissful. Let’s hope the message isn’t lost on America’s largest state.

Iris Maria Chávez is an education advocate and communications consultant working with national and Oregon-focused organizations to advance equity by supporting the creation of just policies, engaging with communities and supporting communications efforts that better communities in Oregon and across the nation. She worked for over a decade in Washington, D.C., in education policy and advocacy for civil rights and advocacy organizations such as the Education Trust and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

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