The State Board of Education on Wednesday waded into what’s expected to be a yearlong process of revising the state’s standardized-test-heavy school accountability system. First up: discussing whether to reshape an existing tool, the School Accountability Report Card, or SARC, an annual data dump that every school collects and is supposed to post online, and whether to consider adding a new dimension – school inspections.
Talk of changing the state’s accountability system has gained currency amid recognition that narrow measures under the state’s Academic Performance Index, combined with federal accountability requirements, have skewed priorities and undervalued much of what schools try to accomplish. Today, the State Board will vote on seeking a waiver from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from some burdens and penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act in return for revising the state’s Academic Performance Index, the system of rating a school using a score of 200 to 1,000, based on student test results.
What should be in the API is an open question. When establishing it in 1999, legislators said the API should be based a minimum of 60 percent on various combinations of standardized tests. Since lawmakers never decided what to do with the other 40 percent, the API has been 100 percent test-based.
Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg has reintroduced legislation (SB 1458) that would limit standardized tests to 40 percent of a high school’s API – and a minimum of 40 percent for elementary schools – leaving open the option of also including factors such as graduation and college acceptance rates, dropout rates, suspensions and other conduct measures, AP courses, apprenticeships and career preparation, and other gauges of student achievement. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill that had widespread support, saying there’s been too much attention on quantitative measures and not enough on qualitative ones. That’s when Brown first alluded to local school inspections to get a better sense of a school’s culture, values, and role in the community, its ability to inspire “good character or love of learning,” “student excitement and creativity.” Since his Delphic veto message, Brown hasn’t been more specific on school inspections, leaving it up to the State Board to figure out what purpose they’d serve, how they’d work, and who’d pay for them.
As the State Board learned through an overview from WestEd there are plenty of models: New York City has a Department of Education Quality Review modeled after the British school inspection service. Ohio has School Improvement Diagnostic Reviews for low-performing schools facing federal sanctions under No Child Left Behind. Closer to home, under Sacramento City Unified’s School Quality Review, begun three years ago, every school in the district undergoes an intensive inspection that’s supposed to help guide its improvement, though findings results are not publicized. There’s also the accreditation model used by WASC, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a combination of self-evaluation and outside inspection; its president, David Brown, indicated that WASC could work with the state on creating a new type of inspection.
But first, the State Board has to decide the purpose of inspections and who’d do and pay for them. Would they be for the purpose of accountability or for school improvement? Would they be for every school and involve parents as well as students, would they look at school climate as well as curriculums, or would they initially be reserved for providing guidance and action plans for schools facing penalties for low performance – a possible starting point, said State Board President Michael Kirst.
In doing its homework, WestEd made several conclusions about inspection systems:
- It is challenging to develop a set of measures in which reviewers can be trained in reliable ways.
- Interviewees suggested that reviews alone don’t lead to school improvement; follow-up visits are important to check on progress.
- Costs of inspections are difficult to calculate, but quality reviews require dedicated funding.
Challenge of spending flexibility
There’s another cause for urgency in broadening measures of accountability. As part of his finance reform, Brown wants to end state restrictions on how money for designated or categorical programs is spent and give districts near-total control over their budgets. First, there’s the legitimate worry that money previously earmarked for disadvantaged kids will no longer be spent on them. Second, if the API score remains weighted toward English and math tests, then schools will continue to devalue science, arts and other dimensions of learning.
Kirst is focusing on SARC as an underutilized resource that parents and the community can use to hold their local schools accountable. The problem isn’t a lack of information. SARCs include dozens of data elements, including student enrollment, class sizes, school climate survey findings, information on teachers and staff, curriculum descriptions, textbook availability, expenditure data, student performance results, professional development statistics and school completion information.
The challenge is to pick key information for all schools and present it in a uniform format; districts currently have the right to choose their own templates. Board member Patricia Rucker noted the dilemma that people have been requesting that more information be added to SARC at the same time that they want it more compact and easier to read.