Remaking Accountability in California: Getting Beyond Test Scores

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 06, 2014 4 min read
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Amid the focus on school funding changes and the Vergara teacher-tenure trial in California, one key question about California education policy has attracted relatively little attention: How will the state change its accountability system? The short answer so far is that it’s very unclear, despite the passage of a law two years ago requiring an overhaul.

But let’s get into some background first.

In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed into law a requirement that the Golden State overhaul its Academic Performance Index (API) that is used to judge schools. As a helpful overview from the California School Boards Association explains, the law required some specific changes to California’s K-12 accountability system, but left other aspects of that overhaul unanswered.

For example, the law capped at 60 percent the weight assigned under the API to standardized test scores in English/language arts, math, and other subjects. It also required graduation and promotion rates to be included in some way for high school, and promotion rates for middle schools. But the law it also said that a new API formula would include various measures of “college and career readiness,” without specifying what those must or should be.

Regardless, a new API formula must be approved and in place by May 2015, although there’s additional work to be done on how the formula works through 2017. (In 2013, California won a waiver from the federal government that allowed it to ditch its traditional standardized assessments and instead administer field tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards and designed by the Smarter Balanced consortium. This meant that the state’s traditional testing data was absent from its accountability system for 2013-14.)

As it happens, a year after the law was passed the percentage of schools meeting a score of 800 on the API scale dipped for the first time in a decade. (The scale is from 200 to 1,000 points, and 800 is the performance target set by the state.) As you can see in this chart from EdSource, the decline was mostly driven by elementary schools:

So with under a year to go before a new school accountability formula kicks off, how do things look? Vague.

The state’s Public Schools Accountability Act Advisory Committee has been tasked with recreating the API and will make recommendations to the state school superintendent, who in turn will advise the state school board on the matter. But as the Cabinet Report’s Kimberly Beltran reported Aug. 6, the advisory committee has consistently struggled to figure out the best indicators with a broad reach that also “provide valid and reliable data that can be used to indicate college and career readiness.” Advanced Placement test scores have been talked about, but there’s a sense that there are no easy tests or other indicators to plug into the system.

The advisory committee is also are discussing how to weight the various factors.

There’s also the fact that the new API formula will have to play nice with Local Control Accountability Plans, which are sets of goals and expectations school districts have created for themselves under the state’s new K-12 funding system. These plans have to measure progress of student performance and including a breakdown of various student subgroups in the process.

A couple of months ago, for a story I did on shake-ups in state K-12 accountability systems, I spoke to Paul Warren, a research associate at the Public Policy Institute of California, about this challenge. (California ultimately didn’t make it into that print story.) He said the original law that created the API always envisioned using indicators other than test scores in accountability, but the fact that officials are still debating how to turn that vision into reality speaks to how difficult the task is. He said other possible indicators to use in a new API include industry certifications in certain skills for high school students.

This is a problem not confined to California. Indiana has run into similar issues when considering how to alter its own A-F school accountability system. The co-leader of the Indiana Center on Education and Career Innovation, Claire Fiddian-Green, told me that state officials there have decided that using college- and career-readiness indicators other than test scores isn’t practical, because such indicators in many cases can’t be applied uniformly to a statewide accountability system.

Fiddian-Green also mentioned dual enrollment in college courses as a measure for high school students’ college preparedness, an approach also highlighted by Achieve. But that approach won’t be a part of Indiana’s new A-F system for the 2014-15 school year. Could it work in California’s revamped API system?

In addition, there’s also the question of how the API, which Warren said wasn’t designed with longitudinal data systems in mind, can account for measures of a single student’s growth over time, an issue Warren addressed in a video from 2013 below:

Warren also stressed that it’s still unclear how the local accountability plans will mesh with any new API system. Beltran notes that API faces a diminished role in the future as the local plans become more important. Whereas API seems like a system designed with the No Child Left Behind Act in mind, the local plans might represent more of a “bottom-up” approach in California.

And there’s one other factor Warren raised that might complicate both the local and state changes to accountability.

“Who knows what’s going to happen when No Child Left Behind is reauthorized? Then what should the state do?” he asked.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.