School & District Management Opinion

California Moving Rapidly Toward Post-NCLB Accountability

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — October 22, 2014 5 min read
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About half way through a very good croissant, Mike Kirst banged his patio table impatiently saying, “You need to get onto the eight state priorities and away from this API.” In one sentence, the president of the California State School board signaled the end of the old era of assessment and the dawn of another.

Since 1999, the API or Academic Progress Indicator had been the number that counted for the state’s 1,000 school districts. Large or small, schools and districts were rated and ranked on how well their students did on the API, which mostly reflected student scores on the California Standards Test given each statewide each spring. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, gave it a sibling, the Annual Yearly Progress indicator based on the same tests.

State Wakes While The API Slumbers

With the passage of the state’s Local Control Financing Formula in 2013, the API went into hibernation. In our interview, Kirst signaled that the API won’t rise from its slumber as the single measure of accountability.

California school districts know about the eight state priorities; they just don’t entirely know what to do with them. Student achievement broadens from just the results from the Common Core/Smarter Balanced tests to include tracking progress of English Learners, and share of students prepared for college, among other measures. In addition to student achievement, California requires school districts to report progress in:

  • Other student outcomes: may include results on other exams.
  • Implementation of the Common Core: including standards for English Learners.
  • School climate: including suspension and expulsion rates and other locally devised measures.
  • Student engagement: including attendance rates, chronic absenteeism, dropout rates, and graduation rates.
  • Parental engagement: efforts to seek input and promote involvement.
  • Course access: and enrollment in required areas of study.
  • Basic services: rates of teacher assignment outside of areas of competency, student access to standards-aligned materials, facilities in good repair.

Schools can add their own measures, and they are starting to, which is what we are learning from first year implementation of the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), where districts showed how they used fiscal resources to reach toward the eight state priorities. Some districts were inventive. Overall, the plans were a mixture of good, bad, and awful.

The seven California districts that got waivers from the NCLB reporting requirements have created a multiple measures accountability index for themselves. In other places, the LCAP was an exercise in filling out a template that the State Board of Education created and subsequently replaced. As David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, noted in an interview, “some of the superintendents are inserting an ‘R’ into ‘LCAP’.” At this early stage, the new accountability mechanism is perhaps best evaluated as one would a dog trained to walk on its hind legs: not beautiful but wondrous in that it happens at all.

Beyond NCLB Accountability

What’s apparent to Kirst and others is that the nation’s most populous state has moved beyond NCLB accountability. In an era where Congress is deadlocked, California is pushing to create new, multiple measure accountability measures, some of which may not lead to easy cross-district comparison.

“I do not think we can reduce everything on that diagram to a number,” Kirst said.

“I don’t have a complete vision in my head,” he said. “I just know what it isn’t. I go back to the idea of a dashboard. When you are looking at your RPMs, and your oil pressure, and your brake linings, you are not merging them all into one. When your engine is getting hot, you are not looking at the gas gauge.”

The dashboard idea is more useful because looking at different indicators tells you where to act, and gives clues about what to do, he said.

Transforming Local Politics

The LCAP experience is transforming grass roots politics rapidly. At least in some districts, parents are on the case, as this report about Eastside Union High School District shows. Public attention is focusing on what districts count and how they do it, and education advocacy groups are learning that they need to move their focus from Sacramento--getting the state to do something--to enlisting attentive and active parents in the districts.

At the reform edge of teacher unionism, CalTURN, the state affiliate of the Teacher Union Reform Network, union leaders and administrators work together toward new accountability systems. Advocates for English Learners, a quarter of the state’s students, are providing budget templates for communities to use in evaluating how resources are directed. And five different research teams are in the field looking at the details of implementation.

Could all this come unraveled? Certainly. More grounded forms of assessment have a long history of losing out to numbers that can be ranked, so that fingers can be pointed. Complex assessments are expensive to produce and administer, and the politicians like easy to understand answers. Concluding that schools are working on getting better on several fronts does not have the ring of hard-edged accountability that creates losers among schools, districts, and students.

Kirst puts down the croissant and looks over his shoulder at the unseen presence of Gov. Jerry Brown, whom he has known for four decades: “The governor’s subsidiarity principle [of moving decisions closer to classrooms] is very important here, because he’s going to push back... There’s an understanding and even a pronounced principle of public policy here.”

“I just hope that folks can keep from pulling it [the assessment experiment] up by it roots to see if its growing,” Kirst said.

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Designing an Alternative

The next turn in designing an alternative to NCLB-era assessments occurs Thursday at a Policy Analysis for California Education seminar in Sacramento. A new report, co-authored by Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University and Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger from the University of Kentucky, lays out a proposal to accountability that is responsive to demands to assess deeper levels of learning and more flexible forms of assessment. [See John Fensterwald’s story.] The report illustrates how the new approach to accountability might be implemented in an imaginary “51st” state. The upcoming discussions will make that state much less imaginary.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.