Parents continue to push for a simple way to evaluate schools as California readies its accountability dashboard
Mike Szymanski | March 9, 2017
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Alexandra Mangia joined about three dozen other parents from Los Angeles to ride a bus overnight to speak in Sacramento about the state’s new way to rate schools. In her one-minute speech Wednesday before the state Board of Education, she talked about how shocked she was to discover how low the test scores were at Wadsworth Elementary, where her children were attending.
“We need to have simple information that is accessible so that parents can be engaged in fighting for changes in the school,” Mangia said.
The California Board of Education at the meeting heard specifics for the first time about a soon-to-be-unveiled school accountability report, the “California School Dashboard,” which will use a color-coded system beginning statewide next fall to help parents evaluate schools.
“We will continue these conversations and will continue to think about changes in the future,” said Cindy Kazanis, of the Measurement and Accountability Reporting Division for the state. “We are moving from more abstract discussions of concepts in the past to concrete things that people can look at.”
Wednesday’s meeting, broadcast live from Sacramento, was the 13th time in the past two years that staff talked to the state board about what should be included in the accountability measures, and they said they have had input from more than 1,300 parents and educators through presentations and online webinars.
Among the speakers was Mireya Gomez, a student member from Californians for Justice attending a school in San Jose, who talked about the fear of her undocumented family being taken away from her. Californians for Justice was a part of the initial feedback and design of the accountability system and encouraged the State Board of Education to have multiple accountability measures.
The state officials changed some of the items in the dashboard specifically because of input from parents and teachers. But others say much more needs to be done, even before the scheduled release to the public, planned for March 15.
The new ranking system uses a mix of indicators, including test scores, chronic absenteeism, graduation rates and more, with five colors from red (low) to blue (high). It will replace the old API score, which was based on test scores and suspended by the state in 2014. The Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law signed by former President Obama, mandates that states have a way of holding schools accountable and that it include measures in addition to test scores.
State officials rejected the idea of a single number to rate schools and thus came up with the dashboard, but many parents said they prefer a single number, and some community groups have offered ideas of how to come up with that number.
The state board outlined key advantages to avoiding a single score for a school, including assessing non-testable successes for schools such as school climate, the ability to focus on disparities among student groups, and more information to support the local strategic planning. The board seemed unwilling to budge on the single score despite pleas made by some of the speakers.
But the dashboard is a work in progress with parts that won’t be added right away. For example, Kazanis noted that the “college and career indicator” would be something they are figuring out for the next six to 18 months. “We have a strong interest from the college communities and we want to get this right and want to be thoughtful,” Kazanis said.
Tanita Balthazar of Parent Revolution, which offered a plan on how to simplify the dashboard, said she was part of a focus group reviewing the dashboard. She has a child at an LA Unified school and said, “The amount of information is confusing especially for people who do not have the required computer skills. You should not have to have a college degree to figure out an elementary school’s performance.”
Charter schools will be included in the dashboard and are evaluated on the same state metrics and with the same state indicators. With the local indicators, charters have some flexibility in that they are only required to meet local indicator standards that align with their charter petitions, said Jason Willis, the director of strategic development of WestEd.
When the dashboard is rolled out, Kazanis said, “There will be a very simple page on how to get familiar with the dashboard, and a fast start guide as well as a 60- to 90-second video tutorial.”
Each school’s dashboard will have deeper detailed reports to show how specific student populations are performing in specific areas, such as English learners’ graduation rates or lower socio-economic students’ math scores.
“The dashboard is a moment in time,” Willis said. “In that point in time it shows what (educators) need to change in their practice, and changing the culture in California is a continuing effort.”
Carmen Taylor Jones of the National Council of Negro Women testified, “Without an overall rating, our parents and communities will remain in the dark. We don’t want the data to solely rely on test scores. … It continues to baffle me with all the progressiveness in this state that our education languishes at such a low rate.”
Teach Plus teacher Kip Morales at Alliance Susan and Eric Smidt Technology High School said, “A single score provides a framework for parents. Without such a score, parents can’t make decisions who is best to collaborate with.”
Student board member Olivia Sison agreed and said it was important for the 11th-grade test scores to be shown in a separate category because “it will show 11th-graders how their tests affect the rest of the school.”
Board member Ilene Straus said the long-term English learners and their reclassification rate should also be included along with the English learner indicators. While praising the overall effort of those who created the dashboard, Straus said she was “caught by surprise” about some of the things that the board wanted to include.
Board member Sue Burr noted that the dashboard will be “a place that people are going to want to make judgment.” She said the report can “identify areas that are not doing so great and I think areas where we should be rightfully proud.”
Board member Bruce Holaday noted that the dashboard is much better than the single number based on test scores that was used to rank schools in the past. “No one understood what that score meant and what to do to improve that,” he said.
The team working on assessments of alternative schools said there is an increasing “invisible population” in the state. Jorge Ruiz de Velasco of Stanford University said that 200,000 non-charter high school students from 10th to 12th grades are in continuation high schools. That translates to 14 percent of seniors, or one out of every seven in California, in an alternative school setting, he said.
“For most of these students, this is the last chance to get a diploma,” de Velasco said, emphasizing how important it is to assess this student population.
Sixth-grader Semaias Muralles spoke about how he has to interpret letters and data for his mom, so the easier it is for them to understand, the better. “We have come from a struggling school, 20th Street Elementary, and my mom has worked hard to improve it there,” he said.
Board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon said it was good to hear from the parents even though the board had already decided against a single number ranking. “But I didn’t realize until I heard the boy speak that the kids are going to be the interpreter for many of their parents. We should look at ways of making this as easy for all.”
* Corrected that charter schools are on the same metrics.