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California Accountability: An ESSA Bellwether?

California has released a pilot version of its long-awaited school and district performance dashboard under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The dashboard takes a dramatically different approach from prior accountability systems, signaling a sharp break with both the No Child Left Behind era and California’s past approach.

Not surprisingly, given the contentiousness of measuring school performance, it has drawn criticism (too many measures, a lack of clear goals and targets, the possibility for schools to receive high scores even with underperforming student groups) and praise (a fairer and more accurate summary of school performance, a reduced reliance on test scores).

I'm not exactly a neutral observer. Over the past year and a half, I played a role in the development of the dashboard as part of the state superintendent’s Accountability and Continuous Improvement Task Force, an advisory group that put forward many of the features in the new dashboard. In my view, both the dashboard's supporters and its opponents are right.

The dashboard is clearly an intentional response to previous accountability systems’ perceived shortcomings in at least four ways:

  • California officials felt state accountability systems focused excessively on test scores under NCLB, to the neglect of other measures of school performance. In response, the new dashboard includes a wider array of non-test measures, such as chronic absenteeism and suspension rates.
  • There was a widespread, well-justified concern that prior accountability measures based primarily on achievement levels (proficiency rates) unfairly penalized schools serving more disadvantaged students and failed to reward schools for strong test score growth. (See a previous post for more on this.) In response, the new dashboard includes both achievement status and growth in its performance measures. And the state uses a more nuanced measure of status rather than merely the percent of students who are proficient.
  • California's previous metric, the Academic Performance Index, boiled down a school’s performance to a single number on a 200-to-1000 scale. Officials creating the state's new system believed this to be an unhelpful way to think about a school’s performance. In response, the new system offers dozens of scores but no summative rating.
  • There was near unanimity among the task force members (myself excluded), the State Board of Education, and the California Department of Education that NCLB-era accountability systems were excessively punitive, and that the focus should instead be on "continuous improvement," rather than “test-and-punish.” As a result, the new California system is nearly silent on actual consequences for schools that don’t meet expectations.

For my money, the pilot dashboard has several valuable features. The most important of these is the focus on multiple measures of school performance. Test scores are important and should play a central role, but schools do much more than teach kids content, and we should start designing our measurement systems to be more in line with what we want schools to be doing.

[Read More: Proficiency vs. Growth: Toward a Better Measure]

The pilot also rightly places increased emphasis on how their students learn in the course of a school year, regardless of where they start the year on the achievement spectrum. Finally, I appreciate that the state is laying out a theory of action for how California will improve its schools and aligning the various components of its policy systems with this theory.

Still, I have concerns about some of the choices made in the creation of the dashboard.

Most importantly, consequential accountability was left out of the task force conversation entirely. We were essentially silent on the important question of what to do when schools fail their students.

And while consequences for underperforming schools were a topic of discussion at the State Board of Education—and thus I am confident that the state will comply with federal and state law about identifying and intervening in the lowest-performing schools—I am skeptical that the state will truly hold persistently underperforming schools accountable in a meaningful way (e.g., through closure, staffing changes, charter conversion, or other consequences other than “more support”). The new dashboard does not even allow stakeholders to directly compare the performance of schools, diminishing any potential public accountability.

It was a poor decision to roll out a pilot system that makes it essentially impossible to compare schools. Parents want these tools specifically for their comparative purposes, so to not even allow this functionality is a mistake. Some organizations, such as EdSource, have stepped in to fill this gap, but the state should have led this from the start.

And while the state does have a tool that allows for some comparisons within school districts, it is clunky and cumbersome compared to information systems in other states and districts available today. The most appropriate comparison tool might be a sort of similar-schools index that compares each school to other schools with similar demographics (the state used to have this). I understand the state has plans to address this issue when it revises the system; making these comparison tools clear and usable is essential.

Also, while I understand the rationale for not offering a single summative score for a school, I think that some level of aggregation would improve on what’s available now. For example, overall scores for growth and performance level might be useful, in addition to an overall attendance/culture/climate score. The correct number of scores may not be one (though there is some research suggesting that is a more effective approach), but it is unlikely to be dozens.

Finally, the website (which, again, is a pilot) is simply missing the supporting documents needed for a parent to meaningfully engage with and make sense of the data. There is a short video and PDF guide, but these are not adequate. There is also a lack of quality translation (Google Translate is available, but the state should invest in high quality translations given the diversity of California’s citizens). Presumably the documentation will be improved for the final version.

These lessons focus primarily on the transparency of the systems, but this is just one of several principles that states should attend to (which I have offered previously): Accountability systems should actually measure school effectiveness, not just test scores. They should be transparent, allowing stakeholders to make sense of the metrics. And they should be fair, not penalizing schools for factors outside their control. As states, including California, work to create new accountability systems under ESSA, they should use these principles to guide their decisions.

It is critically important to give states some leeway as they make decisions about accountability under ESSA, to allow them to develop their own theory of action and to innovate within the confines of what’s allowed by law. I am pleased that California has put forward a clear theory of action and is employing a wide array of measures to gauge student effectiveness.

However, when the dashboard tells us that a school is persistently failing to improve outcomes for its children, I hope the state is serious about addressing that failure. Otherwise, I am skeptical that the dashboard will meaningfully change California’s dismal track record of educational outcomes for its children.