Rebuffed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is back with another academic accountability bill, this time giving the governor lots of latitude to help redefine how to measure schools’ performance. SB 1458 needs to be vague, because, at this point, no one but Brown professes to know what he has in mind.
Recognizing that the Academic Performance Index, based predominantly on English and math standardized test results, was too narrow a gauge, Steinberg last year proposed replacing the API with an Education Quality Index that would have included other indexes, such as dropout rates, the need for remediation in college, success with career technical education programs, and graduation rates. Standardized tests would have counted no more than 40 percent of the EQI in high school. Steinberg and key supporter Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson built an impressive coalition of supporters – business and civil rights groups, career and technical education groups, charter schools, the state PTA, and early childhood education advocates.
But in his veto message of SB547, Brown criticized the continued reliance on quantitative measures. “SB 547 would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.”
In the new bill, Steinberg would retain the 40 percent maximum use of the API, and would instruct Torlakson to expand the use of science and history tests within it. As for the remaining 60 percent, SB 1458 would allow Torlakson and the State Board of Education to incorporate another idea that Brown mentioned in his veto message and State of the State message: school inspections or visitations to measure the quality of learning and instruction not measured by standardized tests. Brown has not clarified if he is talking about a corps of outside inspectors, as is used in England by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) or a less formal system of intradistrict inspections.
The State Board, led by Brown advisor Michael Kirst, plans to make the adoption of new accountability measures a priority this year. At his instigation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization WestEd has surveyed other states’ accountability systems and analyzed all of the data that the state collects. Its report has not yet been released.
The timing is right for a new accountability system. Brown proposes to give near-total control over spending and budget decisions to local districts this year, as part of his school finance reforms. It will become imperative to create better ways to measure whether schools are providing a rich environment for learning, spending dollars effectively on students who have been targeted for extra money, and preparing students well for post high school jobs and colleges.