California’s new color-coded school rating system goes beyond test scores

The California School Dashboard, the state’s accountability system unveiled Wednesday, is shedding new light on central San Joaquin Valley schools – providing parents with a fuller look at districts’ achievement beyond standardized test scores.

The new color-coded system avoids general overall rankings for schools and districts. Instead, it measures several factors including graduation rates, suspensions, chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness. That means some of the new results may come as a surprise.

For example: neighboring districts Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified – while vastly different when it comes to race and income – both received a blue rating (the highest possible) in only one of the several categories of student performance now being measured. Despite scoring significantly higher than Fresno Unified on standardized tests, Clovis Unified received an orange ranking (the second lowest) for its lack of growth in English learner performance, while Fresno Unified received nothing lower than a yellow rating – located in the middle of the progress meter. Fresno Unified received no red ratings – the worst designation – despite only 22 percent of its students hitting proficient marks in math.

In years past, the two districts showed up on opposite ends of the state’s rankings. But the California School Dashboard pays special attention to a district’s annual growth instead of only academic performance. The state’s former system, the Academic Performance Index, relied solely on standardized test scores, giving schools a single numerical score. The API was suspended in 2014 with the adoption of Common Core-aligned tests.

Proponents liken the new system, which aims to be easier for parents to understand, to report cards: A student isn’t given a single letter grade, but rather is graded for separate subjects. But critics say the new system is confusing and does too much, and are calling for a clearer summary of districts and schools.

One noticeable difference is the change in graduation rates for Fresno Unified. According to the Dashboard, FUSD boasts a 91 percent graduation rate – conflicting with its announcement of a record-high rate of about 84 percent earlier this year.

Fresno Unified spokeswoman Jessica Peres Baird said that’s because the new system does not include data from alternative schools. The State Board of Education says it is considering different indicators for alternative schools, and anticipates incorporating them into the dashboard system in the future.

“This view of the data dashboard omits data from Fresno Unified’s alternative schools, such as Cambridge High School and J.E. Young Academic Center. At Fresno Unified, we believe the best reflection of a school system is a comprehensive graduation rate that includes all students,” Peres Baird said in a statement.

The graduation rate was the district’s sole blue rating.

Peres Baird points out that the district’s graduation rates show growth regardless, but that when updated numbers are released in May, the district expects an increase “due to our intense focus on a student’s entire profile and their trajectory of success, targeting student needs and much more.”

Clovis Unified’s graduation rate stays about the same under the new system, and was also the district’s only blue rating. Otherwise, Clovis Unified boasted a green rating for most categories (the second-best.)

“Data tell an important story about how our students are doing, both in overall achievement and in their progress over time,” Clovis Unified Superintendent Janet Young said in a statement. “Given the important part this knowledge has in driving improvements in classroom instruction, we are pleased with how California’s new school data dashboard expands the amount of information readily available to educators and parents around student performance.

“As a whole, we are excited to see Clovis Unified students continue to achieve at high levels, and to grow over time. The data dashboard lets us dig deeply into a number of subgroup and performance indicators to identify what is working, and what we can do better in our quest to have all students perform at or above grade-level expectations.”

The pilot version of the program revealed on Wednesday, which the state is calling a field test, does not yet include all the measures the system will take into account, with some aspects to be unveiled in the near future. According to the Department of Education, the dashboard was created to give parents a fuller picture of what’s happening in schools, and to better inform Local Control and Accountability Plans – part of a law passed in 2013 that changed how schools are funded based on student needs.

“The California School Dashboard is a resource unlike anything we’ve ever had before. I think of it as a high-tech report card for our schools,” State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson said in a release. “Just as our children receive report cards with multiple grades in multiple subject areas, the California School Dashboard provides us with many different measures of a school’s performance – where it’s strong, where it needs to improve, how it’s doing over time.”

In addition to “equity reports,” which lay out districts’ and schools’ colors for different categories, and allow website visitors to explore detailed tabs that show how subgroups of students measure up, the dashboard also offers something called a Five-by-Five report.

The Five-by-Five reports take an even deeper look at districts’ change in performance over time. For example: A look at Fresno Unified’s Five-by-Five report for suspensions place 11 schools in the red bracket for increasing or maintaining numbers that already had high rates. Some of those red schools include Burroughs Elementary, Wawona Middle, Yosemite Middle and Hoover High.

Under the Five-by-Five report regarding Fresno Unified’s graduation rates, no schools are given the red ranking. Three schools, however, are given the blue rating: Duncan Polytechnical High, Design Science High and Sunnyside High.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

State’s new schools report

To view the full report for individual schools and districts, visit