A court decision this week involving Los Angeles Unified has raised again the contentious issue of evaluating teachers using standardized test scores. But a recent report for the think tank Education Sector recommends adopting the same method developed by Los Angeles Unified to replace the Academic Performance Index as a statewide way of measuring schools’ progress.
Called Academic Growth over Time, AGT is a value-added model that compares students’ actual performance on state tests to their predicted performance based on demographic characteristics – family income, language, and ethnicity – as well as past test scores. The intent is to distinguish factors of learning that schools can control from those they can’t.
The use of AGT to evaluate individual teachers has sharply divided teachers in Los Angeles Unified. United Teachers Los Angeles opposes using AGT in any manner, while teachers affiliated with Teach Plus Los Angeles and Students Matter support using it as one of several measures, counting for no more than a third of an evaluation. But less controversial is the district’s use of AGT as a tool to evaluate schools, in part because it involves a larger number of student test scores and doesn’t call for high-stakes decisions affecting individual teachers’ careers. To the contrary, a schoolwide AGT can encourage collaboration and team-teaching
Last fall, for the first time, Los Angeles Unified released AGT report cards for all schools, breaking down every subject or grade taught on a scale of one to five, with students’ actual scores compared with where they should have been, given student populations, for a one-year and a three-year average. The AGT’s advantage is that it can highlight improvements in high-minority, high-poverty schools that may flunk under the federal and state accountability criteria, while pointing to mediocre performances in high-wealth schools that can glide by the targets of No Child Left Behind and the state’s API.
The Education Sector report pointed to Audubon Middle School that, under a new principal and re-energized staff, had a 12 percent gain in the API score in one year. But it was still in the bottom 20 percent and failed to meet the proficiency target under NCLB for the 10th straight year.
The state’s three-digit API number, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, is “a crude proxy for student achievement and allowed schools to be ranked,” writes Richard Lee Colvin, former executive director of Education Sector and author of “Measures That Matter: Why California Should Scrap the Academic Performance Index.” “But it was not designed to give educators much help in analyzing school performance, and it told the public more about who attended each school than how well they were being taught.”
The API’s shortcomings have been known for a long time, and Colvin lists them:
- It’s an indicator of students’ wealth rather than of a school’s educational quality;
- It places too much emphasis on math and reading scores, so that schools end up giving short shrift to science, social studies, and the arts – subjects that don’t factor much or at all in the API number;
- More than 40 percent of schools are above the arbitrary target of 800 and so are no longer held accountable for helping students who are struggling academically;
- It doesn’t track individual students’ academic growth over time; progress is measured by comparing how students in a particular grade or subject do one year, compared with different students the previous year.
Narrow measure of school success
The Legislature had intended that the API be a wider index when it created the index in 1999, but nothing has changed. Now, for the second year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed SB 1458 to broaden the API to include possible factors as graduation, dropout rates and college acceptances, and Advanced Placement scores, along with giving science and other subjects more weight. In a nod to Gov. Jerry Brown, who suggested the idea, Steinberg’s bill could include the results of school inspections measuring non-quantifiable but important factors like school climate and parent evaluations.
There’s no reason why a new index that emerges – whatever it’s called – couldn’t also incorporate AGT as a measure of student progress in combination with proficiency rates on state tests. Colvin said that the costs for districts to compute the AGT scores for its students need not be significant; Colorado has developed an open-source model that districts or the state could buy for $250,000.
State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said he was open to innovative accountability models, but that now is not time to switch to value-added method. The state will begin using Common Core assessments in 2014-15, and at least two or three years of new data would be needed, bringing the adoption of a new system to 2018-19 at the earliest. The State Board will be reviewing the state’s accountability methods over the next year. Colvin called for making a commitment to AGT now and preparing for a transition. The State Board could grant waivers from the use of API to districts like Los Angeles Unified in the meantime.
But Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy told me the district was interested in a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, not a state waiver, so that it get out from federal sanctions for school failures as the feds defined it and also gain more control over federal Title I money. After months of delay, the state has requested an NCLB waiver, but not on terms requested by the Department of Education; getting the waiver would appear problematic.