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New look for the California School Dashboard is ‘an improvement’ — but it’s still not geared toward parents, advocates say

Taylor Swaak | December 11, 2018

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The much-anticipated redesign of California’s maligned school dashboard is live — but some education advocates aren’t convinced it went far enough to improve usability for parents.

The California School Dashboard is a state-run platform that rates districts, schools and student groups on indicators such as test scores and student suspensions — and, as of this month, chronic absenteeism and college/career readiness — on a scale of five colors: red (the worst) to blue (the best). The dashboard, which replaced the abandoned Academic Performance Index, first debuted in March 2017 as part of the state’s accountability system under new federal education law. It drew criticism nationwide, however, for its complicated design and poor functionality, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to pump $300,000 into a dashboard facelift.

While the new version is more visually appealing and “an improvement,” advocates say it still falls short in presenting student data in a way that’s meaningful for parents.

The updated dashboard does not:

  1. Flag which schools and districts the state has identified as the lowest-performing.
  2. Allow users to compare schools’ and districts’ performances to one another.
  3. Clearly explain how colors for each category are determined.

Sharing “clear information” with families is an important tool for helping parents find the right schools for their kids, Parent Revolution executive director Seth Litt told LA School Report. “It’s a huge missed opportunity that we are once again failing to do that.”

What’s new

The 2.0 version is touted as more user-friendly than its predecessor. It’s viewable on mobile devices, uses a gauge instead of a pie graphic to visualize student performance, generates printable PDFs and keeps more data on single pages, allowing users to scroll rather than click through multiple links. It is scheduled to be fully translatable in Spanish by early January, relying on experienced translators versus the often-inaccurate web translating tools the platform used previously.

Example of the old California School Dashboard design (top) versus the updated design (bottom). The updated design’s data are listed once you scroll down the page.

The dashboard will only be available in English until then, a state education department spokesman confirmed.

“We’re really excited about the Spanish translation,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, co-executive director at the Education Trust — West. “It will just reflect that our state has a sizable population of Spanish-speaking parents who this site should also be able to serve.” About 1 in 5 of the states’ students is an English language learner, according to the dashboard.

The new dashboard also displays data for the first time on two indicators: chronic absenteeism for grades K-8 and college/career readiness for high schoolers.

Fall 2018 data, which the state education department released last month in anticipation of the dashboard update, show 9 percent of California’s K-8 students are chronically absent, meaning they miss 10 percent or more of the school year — a 0.3 percent increase from 2017.

It also reveals only 42.2 percent of the state’s high school graduates are “prepared” for college. California, meanwhile, reported a near-all-time-high graduation rate of 83 percent in 2018.

For each indicator, users can toggle between a school’s or district’s data and the state average.

Example of L.A. Unified data. On the left is the chronic absenteeism rate for L.A. Unified students. Pressing the “State” toggle then reveals the state comparison.

• Read more: California’s graduation rate rises, but there’s no improvement in students’ eligibility for state universities

Both Arrillaga and Litt said all of these changes are improvements over the old version and integrated stakeholder feedback, such as nixing the pie graphics.

But a caveat remains. “The site is still not intuitive at a glance,” Arrillaga said.

What’s still missing

For Arrillaga, one drawback of the dashboard is that it doesn’t explicitly flag for users which schools and districts the state has identified as low-performing — even though under the Every Student Succeeds Act, all states have to identify their bottom 5 percent of schools and craft “comprehensive” improvement plans for them. State or county financial aid is also available for districts that have at least one student group with two or more “red” dashboard indicators, such as suspensions and chronic absenteeism.

The state has identified 374 school districts and county offices this year— about one-third of California’s districts — to receive assistance. This number spiked from 226 last year, largely attributable to the addition of the chronic absenteeism and college/career readiness indicators. The Los Angeles County Office of Education is included on the list.

But Arrillaga said parents might not know this information exists, or how to access it outside of the dashboard.

“Parents would not know from first glance [on the dashboard] that their school had been identified for assistance,” she said. “And stakeholders and parents should have a really clear idea of what those schools are so that they can be advocates as well for ensuring that the school is getting the resources that it needs to adequately serve all of the students.”

Other omissions include an English language learner progress color rating, which the state withheld this year because it switched to a new test. And parents still can’t compare school or district data to one another, though the news site EdSource offers a separate tool that enables comparisons.

“Every parent wants their child to go to a school that is going to meet their needs; where the child is going to come home happy, where they’re going to feel successful and smart,” Litt said. “We should be making sure all families have a good shot of finding [that] school.”

The state education department spokesman noted that the dashboard isn’t intended to be “a ranking system for schools.” He added that “it’s more of a diagnostic tool so people can identify the issues that need to be addressed in their school or district.”

Even so, California’s color-coded system leaves much to be desired in helping parents understand student data, experts say. The state has stuck with using colors rather than a summative rating, such as A-F or 0-100 grades. More than 40 states use summative ratings within their systems, the Education Commission of the States reported in May.

The dashboard “is not interactive, so you can’t necessarily click on a color and understand why a school was rated that way,” Arrillaga said. To see how color-coding works, parents can select the “Resources” drop-down option in the “About” menu, then click on California Model Five-by-Five Grid Placement Reports and type in their school or district.

The state received parent feedback during the redesign that explaining color parameters along with the data was “off-putting and distracting,” the spokesman wrote in an email.

Here’s where to find an explanation of the dashboard’s color-coded system.

Litt bemoans the color yellow, in particular, which he says masks “just how far we are from what we would hope for our children.” He pointed to L.A. Unified’s college readiness data, which reveal only 38.2 percent of graduates are “prepared” for college. That indicator’s gauge is pointed to the middle, at yellow. This, to Litt, doesn’t signal an urgency for change.

Is the mayor going to get up and take a megaphone and walk down the streets screaming ‘6 out of 10 of our children are not ready for college’?” he asked. “I don’t think the presentation [in the dashboard] compels people to do that. There’s no clarity here.”

L.A. Unified’s school board passed a resolution in June calling for 100 percent college readiness by 2023.

• Read more: LA’s graduation rate will now be reported in a second way to reveal how many students are actually eligible for state universities

The state has maintained that the dashboard is a work in progress. The California Board of Education “approved a process to review progress on implementing the new system annually,” providing an opportunity “to make changes or include additional indicators or data elements in the future,” according to the state education department.

Litt isn’t convinced, though, that the state will go beyond what it has to do to comply with federal law.

“It’s fine if this is just some federal compliance thing that we’re doing, but if we actually believe this has real bearing on how all schools do their work and how well the public understands how schools are serving their children … this is a critically important tool,” he said. “It’s worth getting right.”

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