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Why California keeps failing to grade its schools

At the time the API was first suspended, our state’s leaders said they would give us a more useful index of schools. Three years later, they haven’t given us anything at all – except a promise that a new index will be implemented for the 2017-18 school year, writes Joe Mathews.
At the time the API was first suspended, our state’s leaders said they would give us a more useful index of schools. Three years later, they haven’t given us anything at all – except a promise that a new index will be implemented for the 2017-18 school year, writes Joe Mathews. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Our state’s leaders keep asking parents and communities to do more for our local public schools even as they keep us in the dark about how our schools are doing.

In the 2013-14 school year, the state suspended the Academic Performance Index, the chief tool Californians had for seeing how their kids’ schools stacked up among schools across the state. The API wasn’t perfect, but it offered school rankings that could be understood by anyone in your neighborhood – from parents to real estate agents.

At the time the API was first suspended, our state’s leaders said they would give us a more useful index of schools. Three years later, they haven’t given us anything at all – except a promise that a new index will be implemented for the 2017-18 school year.

I try not to take this personally. The oldest of my three sons started kindergarten in our local elementary in 2014. By the end of 2017-18, he’ll be heading into fourth grade – and his two younger brothers will be enrolled.

To be fair, state education officials had many reasons for creating a new system: the federal government’s move away from its No Child Left Behind regime, and California’s adoption of Common Core and a new local funding formula that also gives parents and communities the bureaucratic burden of helping create Local Control and Accountability Plans for their schools.

But no changes justify three years – and counting – of keeping Californians in the dark about their schools. The state could have kept the old index alive until it was ready to switch to a new one. Or, even better, it could have used the previous years to experiment by compiling and releasing a new draft index each year.

Instead, it allowed the accountability system to go dark, raising suspicions that the real goal of state leaders is less accountability for themselves and for California’s public schools.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson used the API’s suspension as justification for failing to publish a legally required list of the state’s 1,000 lowest-achieving schools last year. State officials eliminated half of the standardized tests students are taking.

And the California Teachers Association, the powerful teachers union, has been pushing hard against producing a statewide index that could be used to rank – or punish schools. CTA wants districts to have their local evaluation processes that are aligned with the Local Control and Accountability Plans – which, unfortunately, have proven to be monstrously long and confusing documents.

The union’s “ignorance is bliss” logic matches that of Gov. Jerry Brown, who recently told CALmatters that Californians shouldn’t judge the state’s educational system on whether it closes the achievement gap between black and Latino students and other students. “The gap has been pretty persistent,” he said.

Such educational fatalism isn’t just dispiriting – it’s at odds with California’s own record of educational progress. In 2013, more than 80 percent of schools scored above 700 on the API; only 31 percent had scored that high a decade earlier. The same decade saw declines in the dropout rate, more students taking challenging courses (especially math and science), and increases in the school performance of English-language learners and kids from low-income families.

To pressure state leaders, children’s advocacy groups are pushing legislation that seeks to guarantee a comprehensive index that parents and communities can understand. But the teachers union and some politicians are dismissing this legislation as premature – for them, there can’t be too much delay.

If state officials want to show they’re serious about building a useful accountability system, they should take on a makeup assignment: Produce an index of all California schools for each of the past two years – the academic year now ending and for 2014-15. The state has testing and the other data to do it. And we parents sure could use the information, even belatedly.

But I bet they won’t. They’re too busy coming up with excuses for keeping Californians in the dark.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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