New ratings tool gives some schools a big lift

State sys­tem paints far rosier pic­ture than in the past

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Joy Res­movits and San­dra Poin­dex­ter

When they un­veiled the Cal­i­for­nia School Dash­board on Wed­nes­day, state of­fi­cials de­scribed it as the most com­pre­hen­sive way yet to as­sess the state of Cal­i­for­nia pub­lic schools.

Supt. of Pub­lic In­struc­tion Tom Tor­lak­son her­alded the web­site as “a re­source un­like any­thing we’ve ever had be­fore” and “a high-tech re­port card for our schools.”

But the new sys­tem, which is color coded, grades on a curve and paints a far rosier pic­ture in aca­demics than past mea­sure­ments, a Times anal­y­sis found.

Nearly 80% of schools serv­ing grades three through eight are ranked as medium- to high-per­form­ing in the new ratings, earn­ing them pos­i­tive colors on re­port cards sent to par­ents.

Last year in state test­ing at those same schools, the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents failed to reach English and math stan­dards. More than 50 of those schools whose av­er­age math scores fell be­low pro­fi­ciency re­ceive the dash­board’s high­est rat­ing for math. (The dash­board does not in­clude high school scores.)

The shift in outlook is in­ten­tional. The dash­board re­flects a new, more holis­tic ap­proach to eval­u­at­ing schools, one that does not see test scores as the be all and end all. It also em­pha­sizes progress and so heaps praise on schools that do poorly but see sig­nif­i­cant score in­creases from one year to the next.

In re­sponse to The Times’ anal­y­sis, of­fi­cials said it’s im­por­tant to re­ward schools that show growth.

The dash­board’s pre­de­ces­sor, the Aca­demic Per­for­mance Index, was sim­ple to read. It gave each school a num­ber based solely on test scores. The dash­board is harder to un­der­stand, in part be­cause it strives to

move be­yond those scores and cap­ture the com­plex web of val­ues that make a school good or bad.

In­stead of num­bers, Cal­i­for­nia’s schools now get colors. Red rep­re­sents the low­est pos­si­ble per­for­mance, or­ange is low, yel­low is medium, green is high and blue is very high. Just like on a car dash­board, red and or­ange de­mand at­ten­tion.

A school does not get a color rat­ing for over­all per­for­mance. It might get a rain­bow of ratings in ar­eas that in­clude read­ing and math per­for­mance, as well as rates of grad­u­a­tion, English-lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion for non­na­tive speak­ers and sus­pen­sion. And in each area, it gets credit for progress.

The dash­board ul­ti­mately will pro­vide the back­bone for how dis­tricts and the state rate schools — which ones they praise and where they in­ter­vene. Par­ents will rely on it when they pick schools for their chil­dren.

That’s why it mat­ters that the color-coded sys­tem is, at least ac­cord­ing to some, too gen­er­ous.

Carrie Hah­nel, deputy di­rec­tor of re­search and pol­icy at the Ed­u­ca­tion Trust– West, an Oak­land-based ad­vo­cacy group fo­cused on ed­u­ca­tional eq­uity, called the spread of aca­demic ratings “ter­ri­bly mis­lead­ing.” “It doesn’t do any­body any fa­vors,” she said, “to com­mu­ni­cate that things are just fine if they’re not.”

The state, though, de­fended its method­ol­ogy, in­clud­ing grad­ing on a curve. “You don’t want to have an ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem come out and say there’s not go­ing to be any blue or green schools,” said Jenny Singh, an ed­u­ca­tion re­search and eval­u­a­tion ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Brook­lyn Av­enue El­e­men­tary in East Los Angeles — whose prin­ci­pal did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment — is a case study in how the friendly curve might change opin­ions with­out schools chang­ing much at all.

When test scores for the 2015-16 aca­demic school year were re­leased, just above half of Brook­lyn’s stu­dents failed to meet state goals for math. Now, in its math marks on the dash­board, Brook­lyn earns blue — the high­est rat­ing. That’s be­cause Brook­lyn’s math scores grew by 16 points.

On the other hand, more than 90% of stu­dents at West Hills­bor­ough El­e­men­tary in San Ma­teo County scored above pro­fi­cient in math. But that school only got a green for that sub­ject be­cause its scores de­clined slightly.

“It seems al­most in­ten­tion­ally com­plex,” Tim Daly, the co-founder of Ed Nav­i­ga­tor, a New Or­leans-based group that helps par­ents en­gage with schools, said of the over­all ap­proach. “The dash­board seems to go to great lengths to not make any clear state­ments about school per­for­mance.”

In L.A. Uni­fied, test scores re­leased last fall showed rel­a­tively low scores with some growth. But, be­cause the growth is taken into ac­count, most of its schools now get yel­low — or medium — ratings.

LAUSD of­fi­cials called the dash­board use­ful. “The pos­i­tive is that it’s based on mul­ti­ple mea­sures,” said Cyn­thia Lim, who heads data and ac­count­abil­ity for the dis­trict. “There’s go­ing to be a learn­ing curve .... But ev­ery­one is think­ing this is a fairer way of look­ing at schools.”

Lim ex­plained the new sys­tem Wed­nes­day to a group of prin­ci­pals in the au­di­to­rium of East Val­ley High School in North Hol­ly­wood.

“The good news is, there’s noth­ing we haven’t al­ready been track­ing,” she said, as sev­eral prin­ci­pals raised their phones to take pic­tures of her slideshow. When a slide showed how colors on the dash­board are dis­played in cir­cles that look like Triv­ial Pur­suit pieces, some prin­ci­pals gig­gled.

They had trou­ble im­me­di­ately ac­cess­ing the site be­cause there were some tech­ni­cal glitches. But they ap­plauded the value as­signed to stu­dent growth.

When Lim said L.A. Uni­fied will get data for the dash­board from MiSis, the dis­trict’s no­to­ri­ously faulty in­for­ma­tion sys­tem, one prin­ci­pal said “Oh boy” un­der her breath. Lim ex­plained that the dis­trict has added a new layer of soft­ware to track er­rors in data en­try.

Prin­ci­pals were not told ex­plic­itly what colors they should aim for or the con­se­quences of low per­for­mance. The dash­board is just be­ing tested out this year, Lim said. Ac­count­abil­ity will come later. Statewide, the ma­jor­ity of schools ranked blue or green for grad­u­a­tion and sus­pen­sion rates. The ag­gre­gate num­bers, how­ever, do not in­clude al­ter­na­tive schools, which often bring down such rates.

It re­mains un­clear how the dash­board will be used with re­gard to those schools that need help.

Francine Orr Los Angeles Times

THE STATE’S new ratings sys­tem to as­sess pub­lic schools is color coded, grades on a curve and em­pha­sizes progress in test scores. Above, stu­dents in the gifted mag­net pro­gram at Ea­gle Rock El­e­men­tary School.

An­drew Seng AP

STATE schools chief Tom Tor­lak­son lauded the new ratings sys­tem.

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