EQI may replace API in rankings

California’s Academic Performance Index (API) was never supposed to be based on a single test. When it was created as part of the Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999, the legislation was clear on that point.

“This bill would require the Superintendent of Public Instruction, with approval of the State Board of Education, by July 1, 1999, to develop the Academic Performance Index (API), consisting of a variety of indicators, to be used to measure performance of schools, especially the academic performance of pupils.”

In the dozen years since, the only variety has been in the changing high-stakes tests used to determine the school rankings. That would change under a set of bills approved yesterday by the Assembly education committee. SB 547, 611 and 612, by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would reduce the emphasis on the California Standards Test by limiting the exams to no more than 40 percent of a high school’s overall ranking, and a minimum of 40 percent for middle and elementary schools.

The new measurement system would also replace the API with a new system known as the Education Quality Index, or EQI, which would be based on multiple measures developed by a committee headed by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson. For starters, however, SB 547 calls for including graduation rates and how well schools prepare students for college and career success. And the bill allows more measures to be added down the road.

Free throws aren’t everything

Years ago, when I wrote about critics who said the API measure was too narrow, Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, used a sports metaphor to illustrate. If Shaquille O’Neal were judged only on his free throws, he’d never have made it to the pros, said Rosner; that wasn’t his strength. Steinberg and California school superintendent Tom Torlakson reached into the wide world of sports to make a similar point in an OpEd that appeared in Wednesday’s Sacramento Bee.

“No one would judge Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum’s performance based on one inning,” they wrote, “why should parents and the public judge a school based on one set of tests?”

They warn that too much emphasis on standardized tests narrows the curriculum to the subjects being tested and ignores other important aspects of education.

“Are students staying in school or dropping out? Are they ready to continue their education? Do they have the training and skills to start a career? A test score alone won’t answer those questions.”

Ready for change

Just a year after California enacted the Public Schools Accountability Act, Congress approved No Child Left Behind, which added even more significance to high-stakes tests. Now it looks like history may repeat itself in reverse. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has already announced (and we reported here) that unless Congress takes up reauthorization in the next few weeks, the Department of Education will start granting waivers to give states some flexibility from the severe consequences if every student doesn’t score at the proficient level or better on their state exams.

Duncan warned that without a relaxation of those provisions, more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools may be mislabeled as failing.

Susanna Cooper, a consultant to Sen. Steinberg, says the frustration that’s been building among educators and state policy makers over the testing may account for the lack of opposition at yesterday’s committee hearing. In the long queue of people waiting to comment on the bills, not one spoke against them. Some said their organizations hadn’t taken a stand yet, but added that they generally support the measure.

“I think the amount of support for the bill is striking because it (the bill) represents significant change, but I think that’s a reflection of the current limitations of the accountability system,” said Cooper. “I think people are just ready to do something else. We’re at a point where the system is ready to embrace change.”