Numbers are often celebrated for their ability, in their simplest form, to tell objective truths. However, their close cousin, statistics, are more easily manipulated and -- through subjective selection or omission -- can be powerful tools used to bolster any side of a given argument. Now it looks like the California State Board of Education will be engaging in such statistical shenanigans.
When faced with dismal school performance ratings, California’s answer was not to fix the problems but to change the ratings system, instead, to make the schools look better.
On Wednesday, State BOE unanimously voted to revise the criteria for rating performance on standardized test scores to magically reduce the number of schools and districts that will be considered part of the lowest-performing group required to receive intervention from their counties. This will make an already complicated rating system even less useful to parents trying to determine how well their schools are doing.
Released earlier this year, the California School Dashboard is a rating tool intended to provide a more well-rounded way to assess school health and performance than the old test-driven API scores. Schools, districts and a dozen student subgroups are placed into five color-coded categories ranging from the lowest-performing (red) to the highest performing (blue) on measures such as suspension and graduation rates, the performance of English learners, and eventually, chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness. If a district places in the red on two or more of those measures, it triggers mandatory assistance from county offices of education.
The Dashboard also categorizes schools, districts and subgroups based on progress on the annual Smarter Balance standardized tests, and it was this measure that prompted yesterday’s revision in policy. Faced with the prospect of districts and schools in the two lowest-performing groups – red and orange - virtually doubling in both English language arts and math, the Board approved changing the criteria for categorization in a way that will instead significantly reduce the overall numbers falling in the red.
The newest updates to the Dashboard’s academic measure are set to be released later this month. Under the previous system, the number of districts in the red group would have jumped from 81 to 169 in ELA and from 119 to 231 in math. Instead, using the revised criteria, just 64 districts will fall into the lowest category in language arts and 89 in math.
While there is valid concern that the potentially massive number of districts qualifying for assistance would overwhelm county education resources, the Board claims that is not the primary reason for the change. Instead, the Board contends it was the natural evolution of a system still in its infancy, arguing that the current methodology, “does not meet the current purpose of the accountability system, which is to establish goals that are ambitious but also attainable by all schools throughout the state,” according to EdSource.
Some experts also believe the problem may lie with Smarter Balance’s Spring 2017 test itself, as all 14 states where it was administered showed either a decline in scores or – as was the case in California – flat growth.
Still, critics of Wednesday’s revision argue that these changes set dangerous precedents on accountability and essentially lower expectations for California’s students. In a November 3rd letter to State Board of Ed, opponents argued that the Board should have serious reservations regarding the proposed changes.
“It appears to subvert the accountability system and risks undermining public confidence when, after test scores issue that are disappointing, the State so significantly alters the rubric by which performance is judged,” wrote Local Control Funding Formula Equality Coalition, a partnership of 14 student advocacy and civil rights organizations. “What is more, all this has come at the last minute, with very little notice to the stakeholders and the public.”
Others criticized the fact that an anonymous technical panel, lacking in transparency, recommended these changes to the Board. But the most pressing issue is whether these changes truly put kids first. Given that adjustments ultimately will cut by nearly two-thirds the number of districts in line to receive badly needed county assistance, that answer is clearly no.
There is also great concern that California’s Latino students – now a majority of the state’s 6.2 million K-12 population – may be among the most impacted. A recent report from Education Trust-West found that the majority of Latino students are not proficient in math or English language arts in every county in the state, and the achievement gap remains alarmingly wide. Latino students also attend some of the most segregated schools in the state.
In Los Angeles County, specifically, just 39 percent of Latino students met or exceeded state standards in 2017 compared to 68 percent of white students – a 29 percent gap. In math, just 27 percent of Latino students met or exceeded standards, compared to 59 percent of white students, a 30 percent difference in achievement.
The restructuring of the Dashboard’s metrics in a way that disqualifies struggling districts from immediate county assistance will likely hit Latino students particularly hard.
Proponents and critics of Wednesday’s decision all agree that changes to the Dashboard will be necessary. These revisions, however, appear to be lipstick on a pig, at best, and a panicked attempt to sculpt statistics to game the system, at worst.
Flat-lining and declining test scores, growing numbers of poorly performing schools, districts and subgroups and widening achievement gaps are true educational crises for California. Cutting the potential for more immediate assistance to so many of our lowest performing schools delays much-deserved focus on these looming problems for the kids that need it the most. We cannot afford to continue dragging our feet.