No policy area has experienced greater tectonic shifts over the past year than districts and school accountability. For over a decade, California has operated under a dual accountability model. Parents, educators, policymakers, and even realtors have measured school quality using the state’s Academic Performance Index (API), a tidy three-digit score ranging from 200-1000. Meanwhile, the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)—a central component of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—has determined whether or not a school or district is “failing” based on English and math results and graduation rates. Failure to meet AYP results in a series of escalating interventions called “Program Improvement.”
In 2013, this two-part system experienced tremendous upheaval. Local, state, and federal policies altered and further divided the system, creating four distinct school and district accountability systems.
Let’s first address what happened at the state level.
In 2012, education leaders and advisers committed themselves to introducing college and career readiness measures to the API, as legislated by State Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s Senate Bill 1458. Then, in 2013, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 484, a law that managed, in one fell swoop, to transition the state to Common Core-aligned assessments, abandon a host of existing assessments, and pause reporting of the API. The API will likely come back online after the state has fully transitioned to the new Smarter Balanced assessments, but it will not look the same. Currently, state leaders are at an impasse, uncertain as to what data the API will contain, although new measures will include, at minimum, graduation rates and college and career readiness information.
A month before signing AB 484, Gov. Brown and the Legislature passed the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Districts are now required to develop Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that map their goals and plans against eight priority areas. The state also created a new entity, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), to advise and assist school districts in improving performance and to help them achieve the goals set forth in their LCAPs. In some cases, the CCEE can also intervene in failing schools. With these accountability changes introduced by LCFF, it is unclear whether the API could or should serve the same purpose as it did before.
Meanwhile, the federal system experienced similarly dramatic shifts.
With NCLB long overdue for reauthorization the U.S. Department of Education offered states the opportunity to apply for waivers from key provisions of the law. Early in 2013, the Department rejected California’s request for a waiver. The following month, a consortium of school districts participating in the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) announced they would seek their own wavier, which they were granted in August 2013. These eight unified districts (Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Sanger, and Santa Ana) are now constructing their own system of accountability to replace AYP. They will measure their schools on a host of indicators and support them through peer coaching, collaboration, and communities of practice. The hundreds of California districts that are not in CORE are still required to follow the federal AYP model.
With all this as a backdrop, we recommend state leaders streamline our systems of accountability and maintain a focus on strong student results. An accountability system that is fragmented, that contains too many indicators, and that drifts away from a focus on student academic achievement will risk confusing stakeholders and muddying the definition of school success.
In order to ensure that California’s education system includes strong accountability for results, we recommend that state leaders:
1. Create clear alignment between California’s multiple accountability systems.
Create a comprehensive vision for accountability, including a framework that describes the relationships between the LCAP and the API and between the CCEE and the current system of Program Improvement. This framework should also address how public reports, such as the School Accountability Report Card (SARC), support and complement this vision. This type of framing would help guide and focus the work of California’s educators and would create transparency for the public.
2. Develop an accountability system that includes multiple—but not too many—measures of student results.
We support the expansion of the API to include measures of college and career readiness and agree that we are long overdue in making graduation rates part of our accountability system. And as the state transitions to new assessments, we urge leaders to use the opportunity to introduce measures of both student achievement at one point in time and also student growth over time. However, we urge restraint around combining too many measures within the main accountability system. Instead, we suggest measuring and reporting a number of other related indicators through separate indices alongside the student results data. These measures include student attendance and absenteeism; school climate and safety; English learner reclassification and long-term English learner rates; suspension and expulsion rates; and college and career supports, including FAFSA and Cal Grant application rates. Certainly, there are many factors, such as the ones listed above, that make a school successful, and it is helpful to measure the most important ones. But mixing them all together into a single index does not acknowledge this complexity; it glosses over it. Further, ensure that any indicator in a state priority area is valid, reliable, and comparable between districts.
3. Ensure that the accountability system drives improvement.
In order for our accountability system to change outcomes for students, it must include targets that are rigorous but attainable. California should establish clear statewide goals by subgroup for a focused set of valid, reliable measures that include academic achievement, graduation, and a-g rates, and publicly report progress toward these goals. District goals, such as those included in LCAPs, should be tied to these state goals. Schools and districts that fail to make sufficient progress toward these goals should receive escalating assistance and interventions. In cases where schools and districts persistently fail to achieve goals, the state should take swift action.