Test scores up – not enough for feds

California schools had their best year yet toward meeting their targets on the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s ranking system. So it’s puzzling why thousands of schools could face sanctions for not meeting federal proficiency levels. Trying to make sense of the complicated formulas that cause this discrepancy is like being a kid in a Peanuts comic strip listening to the teacher say “Wah wah wah.”

In one corner, we have nine years of continued gains on the California Standards Tests, with a record 49 percent of the state’s schools meeting or exceeding the API target of 800, according to scores released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.

“At school after school, and among every significant ethnic group, California’s students are performing better than ever,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, “even in the face of severe cuts to school funding.”

In the other corner are 913 schools about to join nearly 4,000 others already in Program Improvement status for failing to make large enough gains under the federal accountability system known as Adequate Yearly Progress. But here’s the rub: Many of the schools in Program Improvement and many of those succeeding in the state system are one and the same.

“We believe the No Child Left Behind policies are flawed,” said Torlakson during a call with journalists. “Despite 20- to 30-point gains, they [the schools] will be dubbed a failure; it doesn’t make sense.”

Torlakson sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week seeking a waiver from designating anymore schools as failing to meet AYP. [Read our article here.]

William Habermehl, Superintendent of the Orange County Office of Education gave his full support to that request.  On the same call with Torlakson, Habermehl said, “We need to let Washington know that they need to return the control of public education back to the states and the local levels and stop this nonsense.”

Different rulers and different measures

California’s Academic Performance Index is based on a scale of 200 to 1,000. The state has set 800 as the target for all schools to meet. According to the API results, 55

Source: California Department of Education (Click to enlarge)
Source: California Department of Education (Click to enlarge)

percent of California’s elementary schools hit 800, while 43 percent of middle schools did so. At the same time, just 35 percent of elementary schools and 18 percent of middle schools met the federal targets.

The reason the state and federal results are so far apart is that API rankings are a composite of all student scores in each school. Although the State Department of Education does disaggregate test scores by race, ethnicity, language, and other traits, those aren’t factored into the API score.

The federal government has a higher bar. Under No Child Left Behind, every one of those subgroups must reach the proficiency level on the standardized exams in order for the school to pass.

But high schools are a slightly different beast.

They reversed the trend with just 28 percent reaching 800 on the API and 41 percent achieving Adequate Yearly Progress.

“Not only is the measuring stick different, it’s measuring something different,” explained Rachel Perry, director of assessment and accountability for the California Department of Education.

The API for high schools is a combination of California’s standards-based test scores and results of the California High School Exit Exam.  But Adequate Yearly Progress is based just on exit exam scores, and, as we reported here last week, passing rates are increasing.

Here come the caveats

The state’s information guide on Adequate Yearly Progress runs 81 pages.  Half-way through, on page 41, is the section on Safe Harbor.  It would take an entire article to describe all the conditions of Safe Harbor – and we plan to do that very soon – but the gist of it is that it gives schools a second chance to reach the NCLB pass level if subgroups have shown improvement on test scores.

Another point of possible distortion is the increasing number of special needs students taking California’s alternative test, the California Modified Assessments.  One of our regular Op-Ed contributors has a column on that today.

Then there’s the issue of what it means when a school reaches 800 on the API scale.  The state Department of Education puts so much stock on the number that it’s taken

Source:  California Department of Education. (Click to enlarge)
Source: California Department of Education. (Click to enlarge)

on a magical aura of success.  But that’s not the case.  As the chart on the right shows, each level, from far below basic to advanced, is assigned a numeric value.   So a score of 800 doesn’t indicate that all the students in a school are proficient or better, just a little over half of them.

“Your API score doesn’t necessarily give you information about a subject area or grade level,” said Perry.  “That’s part of the difficulty of the index. But it’s part of the beauty, too, because you know students are doing better.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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